Somewhere between the successes of cancer treatment and its limitations is the person – the solitary individual whose medical needs may be tended, but whose needs for emotional support are overshadowed by the enormous, cumbersome, and unrelenting machine called cancer treatment. How does one navigate this foreign land with its whole new language and unfamiliar customs to find quiet peace and healing? What Love Is: The Duke Pathfinders 50 offers direction. The documentary, by filmmaker Theodore Bogosian, premieres on Rhode Island PBS on Thursday, April 16 at 8 p.m. Rhode Island PBS is proud to bring this award-winning documentary to the national stage as the presenting station.
The documentary explores the lives of 50 women undergoing treatment for breast cancer at the Duke Cancer Center in Durham, North Carolina, and their experience with the Pathfinders cancer support program. Created by social worker Tina Staley in her hometown of Aspen, Colorado, the Pathfinders program – a philosophy, really – provides cancer patients with beneficial skills, such as visualization and meditation, essential to successfully cope with a life-threatening illness. Each patient is paired with a social worker who acts as a guide, and together, they embark as “pathfinders” toward discovering the patient’s own sense of balance, spirituality, support, and self-care, in an effort to alleviate emotional suffering. The Duke study sought to quantify the medical health benefits of the Pathfinders psychosocial support program during cancer treatment. Those groundbreaking results were found.
The film stands out from other medical documentaries thanks to the director’s vision in creating a film that is equal parts poignant and informative.
"I decided to focus on the Pathfinders study because I felt I had seen other documentaries about cancer – especially breast cancer – and they all seemed to be the same film," said Bogosian. "What makes this documentary different is the blend of scientific fact and personal communication, especially nonverbal communication."
The women involved in the Pathfinders program were all diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer and agreed to participate in a two-year Pathfinders trial during their treatment at Duke High-Risk Breast Clinic. Along with candid interviews with patients and their families, the film shows sessions between Pathfinders, demonstrating how the patients and social workers apply the Pathfinders’ seven pillars of personal recovery to improve the daily lives of the cancer sufferers.
Bogosian found it challenging to balance the patient testimonials with the scientific achievements and goals of the Pathfinders program, admitting that the film was not complete until it included the sermon by Reverend Doctor Sam Wells, dean of the Chapel at Duke University. The sermon was given during the nondenominational service that commemorated the end of the study. The service brought together the surviving study participants and their families, the loved ones of since-deceased participants, and the medical and social service professionals who cared for them during the study period.
Woven throughout the film, the sermon by Reverend Wells becomes itself a map with guideposts and road markers on our path through the film. Reverend Wells gently reveals the loss of his own mother to breast cancer when he was young, and offers an uplifting message of hope that reverberates throughout the entire film, and echoes the Pathfinders’ approach to healing through spirituality and unity.
"Death isn't the worst thing that can happen," Wells said. "The worst thing is isolation."
Pathfinders dispels the sense of isolation by accompanying people through the bleakest experiences in their life: death and bereavement.
Reinforcing the notion that the journey is at least as valuable as the destination, the Pathfinders seek the quiet place of love beyond the chaos and fear of illness, and define What Love Is.