A spiritual guide along the cancer journey

Chaplain Michael Eselun helps people address the big questions that often accompany a cancer diagnosis
Chaplain Michael Eselun poses for a portrait at his home.
Chaplain Michael Eselun is the Dr. John Glaspy Chaplain in Oncology Care for the Simms Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

Spirituality often gains heightened meaning for people facing a potentially life-threatening disease such as cancer, contemplating the meaning of life and what might come after.

It is a gift to have someone to talk to about this spiritual journey. Michael Eselun is one such person. 

Eselun counsels patients in his role as the Dr. John Glaspy Chaplain in Oncology Care for the Simms Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology. In addition to providing individual support to cancer patients and their loved ones, Eselun facilitates the weekly, online Circle of Reflection group to help sustain those living with cancer as they move forward. 

Drawing from his experiences in the early 1990s assisting people with AIDS, Eselun helps patients through their spiritual journey not so much by guiding them, but rather by assisting them in guiding themselves.

"I try to help patients ponder the big questions about life, meaning and what may come next,” said Eselun. “I usually feel like I'm not teaching them nearly as much as they are teaching me. None of us can possibly have all the answers, but it is important to think about the big questions, and maybe we can find some answers specifically for ourselves." 

Having helped to develop the Simms Mann Center's spiritual care program since its origin 15 years ago, Eselun has learned that perhaps the most important thing he can do is engage and listen, lending patients a sympathetic audience while they sort out complicated feelings.

"Most people don't want me to define God or spirituality for them,” he said. “I see myself as somebody who can facilitate those conversations and walk beside them on their own spiritual journey. While I don't have the answers, I feel like I have experience with what questions to ask, and I can join them in a compassionate way while they are finding their own answers."

How it started for Eselun

Eselun did not become a chaplain and then start helping people who were sick. He started helping sick people and then decided that becoming a chaplain would better enable him to make a difference.

As a gay man in his late 30s, Eselun was keenly aware of the suffering of others during the peak of the AIDS crisis and wanted to help. In the early ‘90s, while he was operating his own interior design business, he began volunteering for Project Angel Food in Los Angeles, delivering healthy home-cooked meals for homebound people with AIDS and other serious illnesses.

Daily, he and other volunteer drivers would join hands and bless the food that they were about to deliver. Then they would read aloud the names of people with AIDS who had died the day before. Every day, there were more names to be read aloud. 

Then one day a nurse, Cassandra Christenson, visited the Project Angel Food volunteers and told them there was an even greater need for their time. She said too many of her patients were dying alone, and she was putting together a team of volunteers to take two-hour shifts, around the clock, to be with these patients in their final hours. 

"She said please raise your hand if you are willing to get up in the middle of the night and go hold somebody's hand for two hours," Eselun said. "I was thinking, ‘Oh, please don't make me do this.’ But I did raise my hand and it changed my life."

Finding his calling

Eselun became a founding board member of Project Nightlight, with a mission of ensuring that no one with AIDS would die alone.

At a crossroads in his life, with his design business growing, Eselun realized he could no longer pour his passion into that profession.

"After being immersed in this caregiving world, my design work was never quite as satisfying. Having seen what I'd seen, I just could not get worked up over the color of the tile in someone's bathroom," Eselun said.

So, he started yet again to explore his own faith and spirituality. For much of his early 20s, Eselun said, he identified as an atheist, and did not care for organized religion. During this mid-life exploration of faith, he applied and was accepted to a two-year chaplaincy internship program at UCLA, through Clinical Pastoral Education. After completing the program, he started working as a chaplain in palliative care at Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center. He now identifies as a Unitarian Universalist.

Eventually, Eselun found his calling when he joined the Simms Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology 15 years ago. He is now widely published and a two-time TEDx speaker, bringing the spirit of the Simms Mann Center’s approach to psychosocial and spiritual support to the larger community. He speaks extensively to health care professionals, patient populations and faith communities across the country. 

In 2019, Eselun was inducted into UCLA's Eudaimonia Society, in recognition of having lived a meaning-driven life. As a part of the event at Pauley Pavillion, he presented the TEDx talk “It Could Be Worse.” 

Personal journeys

At the Simms Mann Center, Eselun encourages patients to find their own definition of spirituality. He works with them individually, as well as in the Circle of Reflection group, which typically brings 10 to 15 patients together to share their thoughts and experiences.

One of those patients is Phyllis Ryne Bubar, who in 2004 was diagnosed with treatable but not curable non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. She said she has enjoyed a mental boost for years from Eselun's support groups and other programs at the Simms Mann Center.

"I've been around awhile, and Michael is one of the most amazing people I have ever met. So loving and so thoughtful. The first time I went to one of his groups was about 10 years ago, and I still do it online. After one hour, I felt better about myself, about life, and my ability to deal with this condition or anything else," said Bubar, a former elementary school teacher.

"He just puts things into words so well. But after his introduction and getting things started with some thoughts or quotes or poems, he doesn't talk that much. He lets others talk and listens thoughtfully. You can tell that every person in the group feels welcomed and honored, and can talk about whatever they are feeling."

Eselun said he is there to help each patient figure out their personal journey.

"My approach is to first find out where somebody finds their meaning in life, and how this new set of medical circumstances affects that,” Eselun said. “Maybe they don't have access to the thing that gave their life meaning and they have to find a new meaning. It is important that they find their own meaning in life, and it is my honor to help them to find that for themselves."

Take the Next Step

Learn more about the Spiritual Care program at the Simms Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology.