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Can Faith Make You Well?

by Harold Koenig, MD

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Can faith make you well? Although there are a few studies that suggest that people with cancer may have longer survival if they are actively religious, the research is by no means certain on this matter. Although you might not live any longer, a lot of research indicates that you might live better, that your quality of life may be higher, and that your sense of well-being may be greater. That doesn’t mean religious people who get cancer never get depressed, anxious, or suffer with their disease. It just means that everything else being equal, those with faith may do better overall.

When you ask people with cancer, the majority will tell you that their faith has been instrumental in helping them to cope. Again, not true for everybody, but true for an awful lot of people.

About a year ago, I had a biopsy of the prostate because my PSA level had risen from 1.9 to 3.1. In medical school, I had read about and studied the diagnosis and treatment of adenocarcinoma of the prostate. I was shocked when that diagnosis appeared on the pathology report that the doctor slid to me across his desk. I was only 55 years old; how could this be true? It was then that my own personal faith became tested.

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Dr. Harold Koenig

I had been raised in a devout Catholic family and was now practicing in a Protestant church. In my career, I had led over 25 research studies, published 300 articles in scientific journals, and written nearly 40 books on the topic of religion and health. I had given hundreds of talks to scientific and public audiences about the role of religion in health and in coping with illness. Now, I was thrown in the midst of an experience that I had only studied, treated others for, and lectured about. Now I had the big C. Would my faith make me well?

I struggled, as we all do when learning about the diagnosis. I was afraid of the pain, and of the procedures that might be necessary to treat the cancer. I was fearful of dying. I didn’t feel like I was ready yet. I wanted to see my daughter married, see my son get his life straightened out, and go through the joy of someday seeing my future grandchildren.

Well, I had the prostate surgery and have struggled with some of the complications from it, as well as with the fear and uncertainty that the cancer might come back some day. I continue to do medical research, see patients, teach, co-direct our Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health, write about religion and health, and speak to many groups about the role of faith in health and healing. My faith helps me every day to keep going. It gives me hope.

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Dr. Harold G. Koenig is professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, associate professor of Medicine, and co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2009.