Many patients with cancer rely on spiritual or religious beliefs and practices to help them cope with their disease. This is called spiritual coping. Many caregivers also rely on spiritual coping. Each person may have different spiritual needs, depending on cultural and religious traditions.
For some seriously ill patients, spiritual well-being may affect how much anxiety they feel about death. For others, it may affect what they decide about end-of-life treatments. Some patients and their family caregivers may want doctors to talk about spiritual concerns, but may feel unsure about how to bring up the subject.
Spirituality and religion can be important to the well-being of people who have cancer, enabling them to better cope with the disease. Spirituality and religion may help patients and families find deeper meaning and experience a sense of personal growth during cancer treatment, while living with cancer, and as a cancer survivor.
Spirituality versus Religion
Spirituality is the relationship people have with a force or power beyond themselves that helps them feel connected and enrich their lives. Religion is a specific set of beliefs or practices usually connected to an organized group. Some people find spirituality by practicing their religious beliefs, while others find it outside of an organized religion.
Many cancer patients would describe themselves as spiritual, but not necessarily religious, experts say.
People who are already religious often become more deeply religious being diagnosed with cancer, whereas others who were not religious sometimes seek spirituality and a connection to a power outside themselves after the diagnosis.
Often people return to the religious traditions of their childhood, experts say. But others may find comfort in a new tradition, such as meditation.
“Spirituality is a chance to be reconnected to God, a religious tradition, and a community that provides hope and strength for the cancer patient”
Spirituality and Quality of Life for Cancer Patients
Experts say that spiritual or religious practices can help you adjust to the effects of cancer and its treatment. Patients who rely on their faith or spirituality tend to experience increased hope and optimism, freedom from regret, higher satisfaction with life, and feelings of inner peace. In addition, patients who practice a religious tradition or are in touch with their spirituality tend to be more compliant with treatment and live a healthier lifestyle.
Studies show spirituality also can have a direct impact on quality of life by contributing to your physical health. Among the benefits shown in studies are:
- Decreased feelings of anxiety, depression, and anger
- Decreased feelings of loneliness
- Decreased alcohol and drug abuse
- Lowered blood pressure
- Better control of pain, nausea, and discomfort
Spirituality may help patients and families find deeper meaning and experience a sense of personal growth during cancer treatment, while living with cancer, and as a cancer survivor.
A Place for Spirituality in Your Cancer Care?
Even though there are more cancer survivors today than ever before, a cancer diagnosis is scary for most people because they are suddenly faced with their mortality. They also don’t know what to expect from the cancer and treatment, although they know it will be challenging.
Often cancer patients report that they feel alone because they believe that no one can truly know what they are going through. Priests practice what is called compassionate presence, where they make themselves available to help people with cancer feel more connected to another human being, and perhaps to God, during this part of life’s journey. Many newly diagnosed cancer patients pray for a cure. However, if a cure is not in sight, cancer patients may look for emotional healing and often hope this healing can come from their spiritual relationship. They want to find meaning in their lives and their existence, and they are looking for a sense of support.
End of life decisions have a huge spiritual component. Some studies show that doctors’ support of spiritual well-being in very ill patients helps improve their quality of life. Health care providers who treat patients coping with cancer are looking at new ways to help them with religious and spiritual concerns. Doctors may ask patients which spiritual issues are important to them during treatment as well as near the end of life. When patients with advanced cancer receive spiritual support from the medical team, they may be more likely to choose hospice care and less aggressive treatment at the end of life.
When Spirituality Is Not Comforting
For some, a cancer diagnosis has the opposite effect on their sense of spirituality. It makes them doubt their beliefs or religious values, challenges their faith, and can cause spiritual distress. Some people become angry with God for allowing them to get cancer or wonder if they are being punished.
Spiritual distress can make it harder for patients to cope with cancer and its treatment. If you feel this way, it could have a negative effect on your attitude and progress. However, even people who are angry at God or are non-believers might benefit from talking to a spiritual counselor, experts say. Expressing feelings of shaken belief to someone who may be able to help restore faith, or even just understand your anger and doubts, can be therapeutic.
How to Find Spiritual Help if You Have Cancer
Each patient has unique spiritual needs based on cultural and religious traditions and upbringing. So you may be unsure about how to bring up the subject with your health care team. Keep in mind, though, that doctors and nurses are used to discussing this topic. Your cancer care professionals know that these beliefs can impact heavily on patients’ attitudes toward cancer and the challenges ahead, as well as decisions about treatment. Most teaching hospitals and cancer centers have churches around to help you cope with the challenges you are facing.
You shouldn’t be afraid to ask to see a priest or pastor. Even if he or she is not of your faith, they have helped hundreds of people take a similar journey, and will not try to convert you to a particular religious belief. They are there to offer solace, not conversion.
The priest/pastor/imam will spend time talking with you, will pray with and for you, and will offer a compassionate presence when you need it. And if you want to see a person in a certain religious tradition, such as a priest or an imam, the doctor can find someone for you.
Spiritual practices that may help you cope with your cancer and its treatments include:
- Praying alone or with someone else
- Having someone else pray for you
- Meditative breathing
- Reading scripture or other holy works
- Saying one passage from your religious tradition over and over again like a mantra
- Using the language of your religion, such as English, Arabic, or Latin, in your prayers
- Listening to classical or spiritual music
- Talking about spiritual matters with another
- During times of pain and discomfort, during treatments, or when you feel alone, these and other practices can help take you mentally to another place where you feel whole, connected, and at peace.