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Spiritual Care for Cancer Survivors

by Jamie Alexis Cohen, PsyD, and Rev. Susan P. Conrad, ACPE

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A cancer diagnosis changes your life. Suddenly, you may find yourself on shifting sands, unsure if your feet will ever land on solid ground. When faced with the un­certainty and fear that this diagnosis can bring, you may wonder, “In whom, and in what, can I trust?” You may suddenly feel vulnerable, searching for sources of meaning, faith, connection, and belonging. A cancer diagnosis may shift your relationship with spirituality.

Broadly defined, spirituality is a con­nection with something or someone beyond ourselves. The spiritual dimen­sion includes how we relate to others, to our surroundings, and, potentially, to a higher power. A recent University of California – San Francisco study by Shields, Kestenbaum, and Dunn (2014) defines spirituality as “the dimension of life that reflects the needs to seek mean­ing and direction, to find self-worth and to belong to a community, and to love and be loved.”

Your journey with cancer may deepen your spiritual connection. Or you may experience difficulty connecting with something beyond yourself. Both reac­tions are normal.

Tapping into your spirituality can boost your sense of well-being during this challenging time.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Jamie Cohen

However, research demonstrates that having a spiritual connection can enhance your coping skills and improve your quality of life during cancer treatment and recovery. While it is no substitute for traditional oncology care, tapping into your spirituality can boost your sense of well-being during this challenging time. It can ground you and help you find strength, hope, connection, and meaning in the midst of chaotic or painful experiences.

For some, spirituality includes reli­gious observances, community, and practices. For others, spiritual connec­tion comes from nature, or spending time with a beloved person or animal. Others connect by serving and giving back to the community.

You can connect with the spiritual dimension of life in many ways:

Seek support and cultivate relation­ships that provide a sense of energy, peace, and joy. This may include con­necting with friends, family, local clergy, a hospital chaplain, your com­munity, or your healthcare providers.

Figure out what makes you feel peace­ful, and do more of these activities. Try meditation or yoga. Spend some quiet time in a place of personal meaning or importance, such as a serene spot out­doors or in a house of worship, listening to your breath and to the sounds that surround you.

Author of Article photo

Rev. Susan Conrad

Explore the kind of reading you feel drawn to. This could include religious or spiritual texts, or even poetry.

Embrace or create a ritual, such as chanting, praying, reciting a personal mantra, journaling, or reflecting on what you are thankful for.

Consider the values you wish to embrace in caring for yourself and your meaningful relationships. Come up with a goal or plan for expressing these values in your daily life.

Treat yourself with compassion and patience, as you would treat someone dear to you.

Seek support as you explore new spiritual practices.

Advise your medical team of any spiritual or religious beliefs and prac­tices that you value so your team may respect them when creating your treat­ment and recovery plan and incorporate them in your care.

Be encouraged by knowing that there is no “right” way to connect with the spiritual dimension of life. It is a deeply personal journey. In this tender time, we encourage you to pay gentle attention to what matters most.

In closing, we offer this intention adapted from Buddhist spirituality:

May you be safe, may you be well, may you find moments of joy in the present moment. May you be free from undue suffering and find your­self held in love and care.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. Jamie Cohen serves as a clinical psychologist with the psycho-oncology service at the University of California – San Francisco Medical Center. The Rev. Susan P. Conrad serves as manager of spiritual care services at the UCSF Medical Center. She is a board-certified chaplain with the Association of Professional Chaplains, a certified supervisor with the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, and an ordained and fellowshipped minister with the Unitarian Universalist Association.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2015.