Alberta Cancer Foundation

Spiritual Guide

SHINE YOUR LIGHT: Spiritual care coordinator Shane Sinclair wants patients to personalize their spiritual journeys.

When one thinks of a hospital chaplain, Dr. Shane Sinclair isn’t likely the first person to come to mind. Young and energetic, Sinclair is more interested in talking about compassion, dignity and the way an individual finds meaning through friends and family than he is about the doctrine of any specific religion. Sinclair represents a more modern kind of care facility chaplain or, as he prefers to define his job, a spiritual care coordinator.

Before Sinclair started at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary as its spiritual care coordinator, the centre did not have a full-time chaplain. Since coming on board three years ago, he has expanded the program, gained acceptance and support from most of the staff and hired on a second staff member to work alongside him. Sinclair’s job description is simple: he makes himself available to talk to patients who may need some spiritual guidance. He prefers not to take referrals, but instead visits different departments within the clinic to do what he calls “intentional loitering.”

“I don’t sit here waiting for phone calls,” he says. “I go down into the treatment areas and I visit people and say hello. Sometimes they respond with just a ‘hello’ and sometimes it’s a ‘hello, I need to talk about something, because it’s my first day in treatment and how on Earth am I going to make it through this?’”

Sinclair says that part of the reason he prefers to approach patients casually is that many of them don’t know what a spiritual care coordinator is or they expect he will give them unsolicited religious advice. Sinclair does not look to any particular religious doctrine when working with any given patient. He lets the patients lead the way and gently helps them reflect on what gives their own lives meaning and hope. For some people, that might mean their church or temple. For others it’s their family or love of nature.

“A lot of my work is looking at areas of hope in a person’s story and how that can be a resource to facilitate what they’re going through in terms of their chemotherapy

or radiation,” he says, “because people generally dig down pretty deep when they go through something like this.

So having somebody who is non-judgmental, a positive presence and really interested in cultivating that person’s own spirituality is what this department is all about.”

Becoming a certified spiritual care coordinator or chaplain requires a master’s degree (though Sinclair has a PhD) and at least one year of residency in a hospital setting. While he is still working on an academic level, specifically studying how a health care worker’s personal spirituality can benefit the quality of the care they provide and issues concerning a patient’s sense of dignity, his greatest qualification is his innate ability to communicate and make a patient feel comfortable in confiding in him.

Cathy Lockerby understands that connection. The nurse and former breast cancer patient was in the chemotherapy unit for treatment when Sinclair stopped by to chat with her. “I found him very warm, interested and easy to engage with,” says Lockerby, who immediately liked him.

From there, she and her adult children attended counselling sessions with him to overcome challenges associated with family communication and support strained by cancer. “I felt honoured and respected by him,” she says. “He’s very skilled at what he does.”

“So much of the work I do is based on connection,” he says. “Whether you call that a spiritual connection or a personal connection, I would want to know the person who is going to care for me in a spiritual way.”

Dr. Neil Hagen, the pain and palliative care tumour group leader at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre and head of the academic division of Palliative Medicine at the Department of Oncology at the University of Calgary, agrees.

“The doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other clinicians at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre deeply care about the well-being of the patients who come here to get treated,” he says. “When the amount of suffering is huge and when it’s complex is when a person like Shane, with such depth and breadth of experience in dignity and in meaning, can help patients tap into their own resources.”

“One talks of pain and suffering, but they’re not the same,” Hagen adds. “They’re related, but they’re not the same. What I deal with is pain. What Shane deals with is suffering.”

Sinclair has plans to expand what he does at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre and has received support to develop music and arts programs that will give his patients another way to explore their spirituality. He has also recently organized a celebration-of-life service to honour patients who have passed away. It’s part of an all-encompassing approach that recognizes that cancer doesn’t just affect a patient’s physical self.

“There’s something mysterious to our experience of cancer,” Sinclair says. “To honour that and be present with that with people in their joys and questions and uncertainties and curiosities is extremely healing, whether they talk through it and figure it all out or whether they simply had a person who sat beside them in silence as they weep. There’s comfort in that.”