Spirituality During Treatment: Michaela's Story

Monday, June 17, 2019 - 2:19pm

As a nursing student at Jamestown Community College, Michaela Pastorius was assigned to take a lecture class on spirituality. "At the time, I didn't understand, and it all went right over my head,” she says. “I thought, how can I help a patient with their spirituality if I don't even know my own? I don't identify with a specific religious group. I never have. I wasn't raised in a family that really identified strongly with one religion, and up until this experience, I couldn't connect with my spirituality, either. I just couldn't figure out how."

Then Michaela received some unexpected news last summer. "I wasn't feeling so hot. I went to my primary doctor, and they found a very large tumor in my pelvis, so she sent me right to Roswell Park within a week," she says. Although the growth was benign and not cancerous, it was very rare and still growing. Michaela would face some serious health issues if the tumor wasn't properly treated.

Treatment Was a Difficult Journey

Michaela’s first treatment, a pill she took orally, didn’t seem to work at first. "My kidneys started to fail because the tumor was growing so quickly that it was crushing them. I ended up with a nephrostomy tube back in August. Then, the medicine appeared successful and her tumor began to shrink. She had the nephrostomy tube removed and was able to work and function normally, at least for a little while.

But the tumor began to grow again, reaching a size of 21 centimeters. The next line of treatment for the rare tumor would be chemotherapy. During one of her first rounds of chemotherapy, Michaela was contacted by a staff member from the Pastoral Care Department at Roswell Park, who asked if she would be interested in any of their services. Michaela politely turned them down, stating that she didn't identify to any organized religion.

At the time, Pastoral Care was in the process of changing their name to Spiritual Care, a more inclusive name that would potentially appeal to patients like Michaela, and reflect their broader range of programs. A few days later Michaela was contacted again by the department, to inquire if "Pastoral Care" were to change their name to "Spiritual Care," would she be more interested in the program? “Yes, I think it's an awesome idea,” she replied. “I think that's absolutely great.”

Spiritual Care is for Everyone

Like many patients, Michaela assumed Pastoral Care programs were meant for people who were members of organized religions. But the Spiritual Care programs at Roswell Park are for everyone regardless of what they believe and whether they identify with any religion.

Spiritual Care at Roswell Park
Spiritual Care is an interfaith department supporting the concept of holistic medicine. We recognize the integration of spiritual, emotional, social, psychological and physical care as important for the health of the whole being.

Learn more about the Spiritual Care Program at Roswell Park

As the staffer talked with Michaela about what’s been going on with her treatment, the struggle of coping with health issues at such a young age and missing a year of school, they also talked a bit about Michaela’s general feelings about spirituality. Michaela began to understand that she could be spiritual without belonging to a religion, and how that could help her cope with her illness and change her mindset on her experience.

"I was angry about my situation at first,” she recalls. “'Why did this oral pill that was making my life so much easier, stop working?' Then I realized that if I kept taking that medicine and it stopped working next July, I'd have to go through chemotherapy and take another year off of school? I think somebody made that medicine not work on purpose. There's a reason that that happened.

"That's one of my biggest mottos now: Everything happens for a reason," she says. "I find myself praying every day, multiple times a day, not only for myself, for other people. I find a connection there. Spirituality has been a means of opening my heart and mind to someone, a higher power or God, who is always listening.

"Spirituality provides a sense of hope and optimism for me, and I feel relief — like a weight has been lifted — after I have made that connection through prayer."

"It has helped me find more meaning and purpose in life and excites me for my future. I think it is fascinating that we must each discover our spirituality in our way, and that no two individuals will ever share the same spiritual beliefs, unlike religion. Spirituality is unique and has provided me with a better understanding of myself."

Finding a Purpose

By praying for others and developing her "everything happens for a reason" outlook, Michaela, now age 20, has found a way to view her experience as a stepping stone, instead of a roadblock in her pursuit of becoming a nurse.

"I think, at first, everyone asks why? But, I think I was put on this earth to help people. Which is why I want to become a nurse, and this experience is going to help me that much more," says Michaela. "To be able to sit with a patient and say, 'I was there once. I understand what you're going through.'”

To me, it's important to wake up every day and find a purpose for my being. I feel there's a purpose in every day, whether it's working towards a bigger goal in life —like becoming a nurse — or something as simple as making someone else smile. I've thoroughly enjoyed discovering what gives my life fulfillment and I have to thank Roswell Park and the Spiritual Care department for helping me with that.

An update from Michaela: "I completed seven rounds of inpatient chemotherapy. I had a recent scan and it showed that my tumor has shrunk some more, not a lot, but shrinkage nonetheless. I am now going to start an oral chemotherapy and check in 3 months to see how the tumor is responding. I do plan on being back in school in the fall still and I am really looking forward to it!"

Editor’s Note: Cancer patient outcomes and experiences may vary, even for those with the same type of cancer. An individual patient’s story should not be used as a prediction of how another patient will respond to treatment. Roswell Park is transparent about the survival rates of our patients as compared to national standards, and provides this information, when available, within the cancer type sections of this website.