The Value of Faith and Spirituality For People With Cancer

by Jane Ashley

A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that 69 percent of cancer patients pray for their health. A 2015 study of over 32,000 cancer patients found that patients with a religious or spiritual belief system reported feeling better. The study was published in 2015 in Cancer, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society.

Religions Of The World

Details of this report

Researchers and colleagues from Moffitt Cancer Center examined several published studies of cancer patients (totaling over 32,000 people with cancer) and found a link between patients having a higher sense of spirituality and reporting better physical health. In other words, patients who report an enhanced sense of spiritual well-being also report feeling better physically.

The study organizers defined religious as belonging to a religious organization and attending services. They defined spirituality as feeling a connection to a force larger than oneself — that feeling might come from being part of a religion or finding spirituality outside of organized religion.

Moffitt researchers studied age, sex and cancer-related variables, like type of cancer and stage. The association was consistent across all patient characteristics. Patients who were religious or felt spirituality consistently report better health.

The type of belief that a particular patient had did not seem to affect the way they felt. Whether one attended church, prayed or meditated, the outcome was the same. Having a purpose in life or believing that one is part of something bigger than themselves appears to be the reasons these patients reported feeling better.

Conversely, patients who were isolated or alone described worse physical health, decreased mental health and little social support.

Sources for a Stronger Spiritual Life

Even the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) acknowledges that spirituality and religion can be important parts of a cancer patient’s ability to handle their disease.

Regular attendance (health permitting, of course) at the church where you are a member. The diagnosis of cancer may be a “wake-up” call to attend their church more regularly. Being surrounded by friends you already know often provides comfort and support to someone newly diagnosed with cancer. Being on your church’s prayer list brings solace to many people. Cancer patients may welcome visits from their minister, priest or rabbi.

Return to the church of your childhood. Some of us may have strayed from our upbringing in the church as our lives got busier and busier. Work, raising children, household duties or caring for aged parents may prompt us to stop attending church. However, many people begin attending church again after a cancer diagnosis. We may find ourselves attending the denomination of our parents — it’s a way of going back home to the traditions we learned in childhood.

Church Of Our Childhood

Non-denominational church. Some people with cancer find spirituality as they realize that they are part of a larger group of people all battling the same disease. They may feel more comfortable attending a non-denominational church. These churches are usually founded on Christian Protestant principles. They tend to be larger (mega-churches), use technology in their services and celebrate with contemporary music. First-time churchgoers might feel more comfortable in this setting as they learn about their new spirituality.

Spiritual but not religious. This concept even has an acronym — SBNR. Almost every person has a spiritual side. They may disguise it by acting tough. They may have had a bad experience as a child in the church of their parents. We may never know why some people identify themselves as SBNR. Most people in this category love people, practice forgiveness and trust humanity. You see them volunteering at soup kitchens and homeless shelters. They are often passionate about helping others and/or helping animals. Although the SBNR don’t attend church or believe in organized religion, they find peace of mind in their lifestyle.

Religion and spirituality are individual choices that we, as humans, are free to make. We, as cancer patients, realize how our spiritual life and how our particular religious affiliation can help us. However, not everyone finds comfort during a health crisis in the same way.

Benefits of Religious and Spiritual Beliefs for People with Cancer

The diagnosis of cancer is difficult for every person. No matter where we are in our cancer experience from early diagnosis to treatment or if we experience progression or face end-of-life, our religious or spiritual beliefs help us.

“Why me?” Many patients ask this question. From the beginnings of history, people have wondered why misfortune struck them. The Book of Psalms is filled with writers who felt abandoned by God. Humankind is not different today. We wonder why we got cancer. We never smoked, but we got cancer. We led a healthy lifestyle, but we got cancer. We already had cancer, but we got another kind of cancer. People wonder why bad things happen to good people . People of faith may find it easier to accept the diagnosis of cancer because of our knowledge that misfortune is part of human history.

69 Percent Pray

Enhanced quality of life. Cancer patients experience an improved quality of life. Our spirituality gives up hope and positive feelings about our future. Spirituality helps relieve guilt and regrets and helps us find inner peace. Spirituality appears to help patients be more compliant with dosing instructions and with engaging in more healthy lifestyles. These patients feel less lonely, less angry or hostile and have better control of pain and nausea. They even have lower blood pressure.

Our medical teams. Put yourself in the shoes of anyone in your medical team. Every day, a newly diagnosed patient arrives for their first visit. Chemo nurses calm new patients’ fears about chemo infusions. Oncologists have to be the bearer of bad news that a patient’s cancer has spread. Surgeons have to tell a patient that they can’t operate. Radiologists have to share that a patient has too many lung nodules. And they all have to deal with the death of patients. Did you know that some doctors pray over their patients? At some hospitals, nurses and doctors visit the chapel during shift change. At Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, patients may request a special blessing in the room of a patient about to have a stem cell infusion.

As the lead author for this study, Heather S. L. Jim, Ph.D., points out — Cancer is a multifaceted disease. Many factors are interconnected. She observes that a patient’s faith may be as important as behavior factors and emotional health. Many of these factors are beyond human understanding.

We simply don’t know. On a personal note, my surgeon, who delivered the news that I had Stage IV rectal cancer, told me that he was a “man of faith.” On the morning of my potentially curative surgery, he came into the pre-op holding area, took my hands and prayed over me. You have no idea how powerful that was for me. Then he asked me if I was ready, and I said, “Yes. Let’s get this done.”
Prayer, faith and spirituality are important considerations for the majority of cancer patients.

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