Finding Comfort in Spirituality

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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

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," says Rev. Deborah K. Davis, director of field education at Princeton Theological Seminary, who was a chaplain at Princeton Medical Center in New Jersey for many years.

Spirituality Can Enhance 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:

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. Chaplains 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, explained Barbara Klimowicz, assistant director of pastoral care and chaplain at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

"When I talk to a patient, we talk about being alone in a crowd. They may have a lot of support from family, friends, and community, but yet, they still can feel alone," she said. "In the middle of the night, when everyone goes home, you are alone with your thoughts, and you really lean on God."

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. "Deciding what you are going to do or not going to do has a lot to do with deciding what comes next," said Davis. "If you believe something comes next and you are hopeful, then it may be easier for you to let go of futile treatments."

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 hospitals and cancer centers have pastoral care departments to help you cope with the challenges you are facing.

You shouldn't be afraid to ask to see a chaplain. Even if he or she is not of your faith, the chaplain has helped hundreds of people take a similar journey, and will not try to convert you to a particular religious belief. The chaplain is there to offer solace, not conversion.

The chaplain 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 a rabbi, the chaplain 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
  • Meditation
  • 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 Hebrew, Arabic, or Latin, in your prayers
  • Listening to classical or spiritual music
  • Yoga
  • 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.

Finding Spiritual Comfort for Cancer Patients

  • Make your health care team aware of any religious or spiritual beliefs so that all concerns, practices, or needs can be respected and addressed appropriately and supportively.
  • The health care team often can refer you to a chaplain, appropriate religious leader, or support group.
  • Don't worry if the chaplain recommended is not of your faith. Most chaplains have experiencing helping cancer patients of many faiths; he or she will not try to convert you to a different religion.
  • However, the chaplain can also help you find someone from your faith, if you prefer.