BACKGROUND: Dignity is an inherent value in palliative care, but understanding dignity among people living with and hospitalized for incurable esophageal cancer has not been explored.
OBJECTIVE: The aim of this study was to empirically explore the meaning of dignity in people hospitalized with incurable esophageal cancer.
METHODS: A qualitative hermeneutic approach, inspired by Gadamer, guided the research process and interpretation of the transcribed interviews. Eighteen patients participated in the study.
RESULTS: The meaning of dignity was revealed as reverential response in care relationships and eating as an undignifying activity. A balance of the healthcare system's framework with the lifeworld of the patient was significant in preserving dignity and gave patients a sense of reverent response. Patients were unable to eat ordinary daily meals, which affected their perception of own body and identity, including interactions with others. The resulting bodily changes and social consequences were of crucial importance to the perceived dignity.
CONCLUSIONS: A dialogical and understanding approach is significant in making the patient feel worthy, consequently helping to uphold a sense of dignity. The changing and decaying body due to eating difficulties bears witness to illness, altering the individual's sense of self, in turn threatening the dignity of identity.
IMPLICATION FOR PRACTICE: The care should be based on a reverential response based on the patients' lifeworld. In doing so, storytelling might be a way. Palliative care for these people needs to stress that patients share other aspects of life that is not totally dominated by their illness, inability to eat, and unrecognizable body.