KGH oncologist compiles lessons on dying

KENNEWICK -- Not so long ago people died in their homes rather than in hospitals.

They died with family and perhaps their minister or parish priest at their bedside. Death was part of the fabric of life.

But Dr. Stephen Iacoboni, an oncologist at Kennewick General Hospital, believes Americans have become a culture that's disconnected from death and dying -- so much so that many people no longer know how to cope with the reality that their lives will end.

"We don't see people dying," he said. "People who die in wars die on foreign soil. People die in hospitals and in nursing homes. They don't die in our homes."

As a doctor whose specialty is inextricably bound with death, he found patients coming to him seeking answers about death -- about how to die -- that he could not answer.

That wasn't good enough for the baby boomer who has been in practice for 30 years.

"A good doctor wants to be able to provide whatever their patient needs," Iacoboni said. "Even if you don't have the ability to provide it at that moment, you go find it."

He spent two decades on a quest for answers -- a quest that ultimately led to the publishing of his book The Undying Soul.

The book is a compendium of stories about Iacoboni's experiences treating cancer patients and what he learned from them about dying.

The book includes the stories of 12 patients, each illustrating an issue particular to cancer patients.

"They're dilemmas, you might say," Iacoboni said. "It also includes my reactions to the dilemmas and my realization that I wanted to find answers to these problems rather than spend my life confronted by unsolvable dilemmas."

The answers Iacoboni found took him back to the religious and spiritual roots of his childhood -- roots he had severed as an adult and a man of science.

He believes American culture experienced a shift away from spirituality sometime around 1970.

"After 1970 it got worse," he said. "All of a sudden people who have cancer are thrust into this experience that is hard enough to cope with by its very nature, but the fact that you've been isolated from it makes it harder.

"The coping mechanism from the beginning of the human race has been religion and spirituality. All of a sudden, (religion) for the first time in human history doesn't have the same soothing impact it has had up until 1970."

Although he had shed himself of spiritual considerations, Iacoboni started to see that terminally ill patients who had a spiritual framework accepted death more easily and peacefully than those with no foundation of faith.

Eventually, he reclaimed his own need for magic and mystery and faith.

"The fact is in every single piece of humanity, whether we go into the Amazonian forest or the aboriginal plains or the Middle East or the Far East -- every single human society has had religion," he said.

"They had constructed a world view of a god or deity that influenced their lives, and there was reason for there to be hope after death. It is an utterly ingrained and essential part of the human condition. The only exception is in the modern world where we have intellectualized our way out of it."

He believes prominent atheists such as Christopher Hitchens have misled people to an existential precipice in which their lives and deaths are devoid of meaning.

"We literally live in a world for the first time in human history that people lying on their death beds are unsure about where they're going next," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, it's a tragedy. The people who have promoted these myths about atheism are responsible. I can't stand to see my patients suffer for no reason."

The book is intended to give cancer patients and caregivers a spiritual grounding and framework to cope with the journey of dying. But Iacoboni said it is nonsectarian and does not advance any particular religious creed or beliefs over others.

"I think the message of religion is universal," he said. "The message (of the book) is to break down the idea of a godless universe. You will find your own path. ... I'm not here to tell anyone which church to go to. I'm here to tell them they have a soul."

The self-published book is available through Iacoboni's website at theundyingsoul.com or through amazon.com.