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The Role of Spirituality in Cancer Care


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The terms spirituality and religion are often used in place of each other, but for many people they have different meanings. Religion may be defined as a specific set of beliefs and practices, usually within an organized group. Spirituality may be defined as an individual’s sense of peace, purpose, and connection to others and beliefs about the meaning of life. Spirituality may be found and expressed through an organized religion or in other ways. People may think of themselves as spiritual or religious, or both.

Studies have shown that religious and spiritual values are important to Americans. Most American adults say that they believe in God and that their religious beliefs affect how they live their lives. However, people have different ideas about life after death, belief in miracles, and other religious beliefs.

Many people 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. Some people and their family caregivers may want doctors to talk about spiritual concerns, but may feel unsure about how to bring up the subject.

Some studies show that spiritual or religious beliefs and practices create a positive mental attitude that may help a person feel better.

There is a growing understanding that doctors’ support of spiritual well-being in the very ill helps improve their quality of life. Healthcare providers who treat people coping with cancer are looking at new ways to help them with religious and spiritual concerns.

Serious illnesses like cancer may cause people with cancer or family caregivers to have doubts about their beliefs or religious values and cause much spiritual distress. Some studies show that people with cancer may feel that they are being punished by God or may have a loss of faith after being diagnosed. Others may have mild feelings of spiritual distress when coping with cancer.

Spirituality and Quality of Life
It is not known for sure how spirituality and religion are related to health. Some studies show that spiritual or religious beliefs and practices create a positive mental attitude that may help a person feel better and improve the well-being of family caregivers. Spiritual and religious well-being may help improve health and quality of life in the following ways:

  • decrease anxiety, depression, anger, and discomfort;
  • decrease the sense of isolation (feeling alone) and the risk of suicide;
  • decrease alcohol and drug abuse;
  • lower blood pressure and the risk of heart disease;
  • help a person adjust to the effects of cancer and its treatment;
  • increase a person’s ability to enjoy life during cancer treatment;
  • give a feeling of personal growth as a result of living with cancer; and
  • increase positive feelings, including hope and optimism, freedom from regret, satisfaction with life, and a sense of inner peace.

Spiritual and religious well-being may also help a person live longer.

Spiritual distress may also affect health. Spiritual distress may make it harder for people to cope with cancer and cancer treatment. Healthcare providers may encourage you to meet with experienced spiritual or religious leaders to help deal with your spiritual issues. This may improve your health, quality of life, and ability to cope.

How Your Healthcare Team Can Address Your Spiritual Needs
Spirituality and religion are very personal issues. People with cancer should expect doctors and caregivers to respect their religious and spiritual beliefs and concerns. People with cancer who rely on spirituality to cope with the disease should be able to count on the healthcare team to give them support. This may include giving them information about people or groups that can help with spiritual or religious needs. Most hospitals have chaplains, but not all outpatient settings do. People with cancer who do not want to discuss spirituality during cancer care should also be able to count on the healthcare team to respect their wishes.

Doctors and caregivers will try to respond to your spiritual concerns, but may not take part in your religious practices or discuss specific religious beliefs. The healthcare team may help with your spiritual needs in the following ways:

  • suggest goals and options for care that honor your spiritual and/or religious views;
  • support your use of spiritual coping during the illness;
  • encourage you to speak with your religious or spiritual leader;
  • refer you to a hospital chaplain or support group that can help with spiritual issues during illness; and
  • refer you to other therapies that have been shown to increase spiritual well-being. These include mindfulness relaxation, such as yoga or meditation, or creative arts programs, such as writing, drawing, or music therapy.

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Source: National Cancer Institute,

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2011.