Caring for Loved Ones With Cancer
How Spiritual First Aid and BLESS CPR can empower people to help others with cancer.
Dr. Jamie Aten
I don’t just study disasters, I’ve lived them.
My family and I had moved to South Mississippi just six days before Hurricane Katrina struck our community. Since that time, I’ve spent my career walking alongside churches and communities impacted by mass disasters, humanitarian crises, and conflicts around the globe.
Then at the age of 35 I became the disaster zone: I was diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer which required radiation, surgery, oral and drip chemotherapy, and a permanent colostomy.
I feel grateful to be writing this article just days away from my 45th birthday with no evidence of disease. Like the disasters I’ve responded to over the years, my road to recovery has had its challenges, including chronic health issues, near yearly hospital stays, numerous surgeries, and a month long stay in the hospital last year in which I was days away from being put on palliative care.
Caring well for others
In this article I share some of the lessons that I’ve learned from these experiences on how to care well for others impacted by cancer without burning out. Specifically, I’ll share how you can provide spiritual and emotional care using Spiritual First Aid, a biblically-informed, evidence-informed, and trauma-informed peer-to-peer helping training I co-developed with my colleague Kent Annan.
I first met Kent who had popped into the back of a small seminar room in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake on a short five-minute break of a trauma training, I was leading at a medical school in Port-au-Prince. Little did either of us know that we’d end up co-directing the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College together, that he’d show up at my bedside in the hospital as my loved ones contemplated palliative care, or that we’d work together to turn these experiences into Spiritual First Aid, which teaches the BLESS CPR helping framework, which I unpack next.
Spiritual First Aid
With Spiritual First Aid, as a caregiver, you’ll be equipped to fill a critical gap by addressing your loved ones most basic needs that help them take the next step in their cancer journey.
Spiritual First Aid is not counseling, it’s not psychotherapy. It’s not meant to replace professional care. You can think of the difference between Spiritual First Aid and counseling by thinking of the difference between an ice pack and a heat pack.
Perhaps, you scraped your knee or maybe even overextended your elbow playing tennis. When it comes to a physical injury, you first want to apply ice to reduce swelling shortly after. But heat is often used to treat persisting problems.
Think of Spiritual First Aid as the ice pack you’ll use to provide temporary relief and to keep the swelling in check, which can also help recovery later on. Then think of professional counseling as the heat pack that seeks to provide long-term relief by going deep into the problem like heat into an injured muscle. With this Spiritual First Aid, you’ll be ready to apply an “ice-pack” to spiritual and emotional needs—that is, you’ll be able to provide critical care when and where others need it most. To use it, you’ll first want to understand people’s core needs—which we refer to as BLESS Needs – and then you’ll learn the four steps of BLESS CPR so you can identify and address those needs.
The Five BLESS Needs
Through over 50 studies we’ve identified the five core needs most likely to cause spiritual and emotional distress when left unmet. We refer to these core needs as BLESS needs. They are Biological, Livelihood, Emotional, Social and Spiritual needs. The first letter of each of these five core needs spell the word BLESS:
Biological Needs (physical and health concerns)
Livelihood Needs (economic challenges)
Emotional needs (mental health struggles)
Social Needs (relationship issues)
Spiritual needs (faith struggles)
These core needs are deeply interconnected. Although only one of these needs is listed as spiritual, all of these needs have a spiritual component. This visual of the five core needs in the time of crisis shows how biological, livelihood, emotional, social, and spiritual needs are all linked and can be understood from a spiritual perspective. Our research has shown that helping people address five core unmet needs in the face of adversity, such as cancer, can help them gain a sense of meaning, feel connected, and improve resilience.
BLESS CPR Helping Framework
You’re probably familiar with the medical term CPR, providing care to someone in a cardiac or breathing emergency. First you need to recognize the person is in crisis, then know how to respond, and how to call for help. Spiritual First Aid transforms this familiar medical first aid concept into parallel emotional care steps we call “BLESS CPR.” BLESS CPR is at the heart of Spiritual First Aid.
To prepare to help using BLESS CPR, we start by cultivating humility by reviewing our strengths, weaknesses, and motivations for wanting to help. This is then followed by:
Step 1. BLESS Triage.
Identify the core unmet needs for the person or people you’re working to help. Give the space for others to share about unmet BLESS Needs caused by cancer. Focus on listening. Ask respectful and clarifying questions as needed. Collaborate with your loved one to prioritize which of their struggles is causing the most distress. For example, you might ask, “Which of the problems you’ve shared about feels most pressing to you right now?”
Step 2. Care with Practical Presence.
Be present and attentive to those impacted by cancer. Practical presence is all about “being there” for others spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Practical presence should be maintained throughout the entire helping interaction. Concentrate on listening and being present by listening more and speaking less. Focus on responding to immediate, basic, and practical needs of others through tangible assistance. Remember, your presence says more than your words.
Step 3. Provide Coping Practices.
Introduce skills and strategies that others can use to endure hardships. Begin by asking about healthy ways they’ve coped in the past and consider how previous forms of healthy coping might be applied presently. If needed, identify one (or two) new coping practice(s) they’d like to try and discuss how to use it. Look for an opportunity to teach and practice a basic coping skill like deep breathing to help ground your loved one and provide some temporary relief while interacting in the moment.
Step 4. Refer and Resource.
Direct loved ones toward needed services and resources for addressing unmet BLESS Needs and trauma. Referring and resourcing shouldn’t be seen as a last resort option, it doesn’t mean you aren’t doing enough to help. Quite the opposite. Connecting your loved one to additional support options and services is one of the most valuable actions you can take to help others in times of trouble. If your loved one is open to it, consider praying together as a natural way to end your helping interaction, which can be a powerful source of comfort.
Putting it all together
When you address unmet needs with the right kind of support at the right time, our research shows it makes an important positive difference for people struggling with spiritual and emotional challenges, especially those impacted by cancer.
I personally experienced this kind of helpful support when I faced cancer.
Start your journey today by becoming the helper others need you to be.
Visit spiritualfirstaid.org to learn more: sign-up at the bottom of the page to get free access to our free 30-minute training video and downloadable tools.
Jamie Aten, Ph.D. is the co-founder of Spiritual First Aid, author of A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Hurricane Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience, co-host of The Better Samaritan blog and podcast at Christianity Today, and founder and co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College.