Spirituality of Young People with Cancer: An exploratory study

Doctoral Studies Completed Theses - 2011 Archive

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Jennifer Broadbent

DSW thesis, conferred 2011

This study focuses on how young people with cancer understand, describe and experience spirituality. The motivation for the study was twofold. Firstly, there were gaps in the initial literature review, which revealed the data were drawn mostly from adults, reflecting on their own adolescence or as parents or healthcare professionals speaking for young people. This meant there was a distinct lack of empirical data from young people about their spirituality in a context of cancer. The second motivation was that in my two professional domains, social work and palliative care, while both espoused a holistic approach, I have found that the spiritual dimension has often been overlooked. While the literature revealed spirituality is often seen as an alternative to religion and secularism, in this study, it included traditional religion and is described as the personal search for meaning and purpose in life, connection to self, others, places, or a Higher Being and transcendence beyond people’s daily lives and physical bodies.

This qualitative study used a phenomenological approach to explore and give voice to the meaning of spirituality for young people (12 to 24 years of age) in a context of cancer. I interviewed eleven participants who were recruited from CanTeen, the Australian organisation for young people living with cancer. Most participants opted for the ‘prompt’ questions in preference to the ‘free narrative’ interview style.

The data analysis revealed that while many participants believed in a Higher Being or ‘something there’, others rejected belief in a Deity. Most participants’ experience of cancer had affected their spirituality temporarily or permanently, and this was consistent with previous studies. Both traditional spiritual practices (such as prayer and church attendance) and less traditional spiritual practices (such as voluntary work and connecting with nature) were discussed. Participants reported talking to others about their beliefs and many were actively exploring other spiritualities through books, films, internet, and experimentation.

Five significant themes emerged from the data: spirituality as a self-defined concept, spirituality as an evolving process, believing and exploring but not belonging, optimism and individualism. While some of these themes have been discussed elsewhere, this research adds new dimensions.

The thesis closes with documentation of participants’ recommendations and discussion about inclusion of spirituality in social work practice.

Supervisor: Associate Professor Lindsey Napier