01:18 AM

Finding Meaning in the Cancer Journey

An Original Program Focuses on Existential and Spiritual Healing for Patients with Advanced-Stage Disease


Contact: Cara Martinez
Email: cara.martinez@cshs.org, Twitter: @CedarSinaiCara


Los Angeles - Sept. 15, 2014 - Knowing their cancer will likely not be cured, but rather managed, is a challenging concept for many patients to grasp. This is the case for Matthew Morgan, 51, who has been battling aggressive head and neck cancer since 2012.  

When Morgan recently learned his disease had spread to his ribs, lungs and femur, he began searching for greater meaning in his illness.

"My cancer journey has many ups and downs, unknowns and frustrations that have left me hungry for coping mechanisms and ways to deal with the day-to-day of living with cancer," said Morgan.

Arash Asher, MD, director of the Cancer Survivorship and Rehabilitation Program at the Cedars-Sinai Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute, referred Morgan to his new program, Growing Resiliency and Courage with Cancer, or GRACE. The program has a clear goal: help patients with advanced disease address profound existential and spiritual challenges they may experience.

Matthew Morgan at the Getty Villa in Malibu, Calif.

"Though cure is a possibility for some, healing is a possibility for all," said Asher, co-developer of the program. "The GRACE program is intended to help patients find a good life, even though it may not be an easy one. Sometimes the very things that threaten our lives may also strengthen the life within us. We want to ensure every patient with advanced-stage disease can find inner peace, strength and meaning."

The five-week interactive workshop series for advanced-stage cancer survivors is based upon the work of psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl's 1959 book, Man's Search for Meaning, which recounts Frankl's experiences as a Holocaust survivor. The principles of Frankl's book, coupled with group readings and poetry, coping strategies and mindfulness practices, can help patients with advanced disease find meaning in their illness while learning to build resiliency within their inner spirit.

Each session brings a unique blend of perspectives from the patients, Asher, Jeffrey Wertheimer, PhD, co-developer of the program and a clinical neuropsychologist in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Ann Gottuso, PhD, neuropsychology fellow in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Bronwen Jones, a cancer institute chaplain in the Spiritual Care Department at Cedars-Sinai.   

"The GRACE programs' structure provided me with a real toolbox of ways to deal with my cancer. I experienced many 'aha' moments that helped change my perspective and attitude of being a patient," said Morgan.

These moments of clarity have helped Morgan realign his response to difficult situations and stray from an angry attitude. He also found strength and comfort in speaking and sharing with other program participants faced with difficult, but different cancer diagnoses.

Now, Morgan is looking at life through a different lens and finding new ways to bring joy and purpose, including hobbies he enjoyed before cancer. "I've reignited an interest in art as a form of therapy, began practicing meditation techniques and started exercising with a personal trainer like I had done prior to my diagnosis."

Morgan added that "living with cancer is hard, but after completing the GRACE program, I have a stronger desire to be productive and give back in a bigger capacity."

In addition to the GRACE program, the Cancer Survivorship and Rehabilitation Program addresses the physical, psychological and information needs of cancer patients and their families as they continue or complete their cancer treatment. Programs include a Cancer Exercise Recovery Program created to combat cancer-related fatigue, improve strength, enhance balance and fight depression and an Emerging from the Haze "chemobrain" series to help patients take a proactive approach to deal with treatment side effects, including memory loss, anxiety, stress, mood changes and difficulty sleeping.

For patients interested in the Cedars-Sinai GRACE program or other cancer-related programs and care, please contact the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute at 1-800-CEDARS-1 (1-800-233-2771).