Cancer as a Spiritual Journey
by Anne Coscarelli, PhD, and Michael Eselun
Cancer is a traumatic life event that is often marked by crisis and loss, but also by the possibility of deep spiritual growth and discovery. It is important for people with cancer and family members to have a variety of tools and resources to help manage the challenges that come. Every physical effect of cancer and its treatment also comes with spiritual and psychological consequences.
These reactions need attention and care, through which opportunities arise for personal and spiritual growth. Unfortunately, cancer care too often focuses only on the body without integration of the psychological and spiritual dimensions. However, spirituality is critical throughout the cancer journey, informing life decisions and enhancing the survivor’s and family’s ability to cope.
Cancer not only invades the physical body,
but it can invade our spirit, our soul.
Spirituality might be defined as that which gives one’s life meaning – what makes you get up and face the day, what makes life worth fighting for. Meaning is personal, and for some that would be religious community, rituals, or a relationship to God or a higher power. For others, it might be their family, their work, or even a specific hobby. When we are in crisis, or disease has altered our relationship to that thing or our capacity to connect to it, whatever it is, then our physical crisis becomes a spiritual crisis as well. Cancer not only invades the physical body, but it can invade our spirit, our soul, our very identities, and the relationships that keep us connected to life or even to our sense of a higher power or God.
Tending to our spirits, like tending to a garden, is ongoing. Looking at the impact of cancer on our spiritual selves, it only makes sense that spiritual care would optimally begin at the time of diagnosis and continue as an ongoing reflection and conversation.
Each of us is entitled to our own sense of spirituality, of what is true and meaningful for us. Like snowflakes, our challenges and our paths are unique. Spirituality may or may not fit within a conventional religious box, or even within the box in which we have spent our whole lives. Sometimes cancer deepens and strengthens that sense of what we have always held to be true, where we have found our strength, our peace, our comfort. And sometimes, old beliefs are challenged and new understandings, new definitions, new meanings evolve. Our spirits are living entities that change and grow, not unlike our psychological and physical beings.
To allow for that spiritual growth, we need room to hold some powerful questions – questions that can not only encourage growth but can also bring about a sense of peace: Can I offer myself the grace to be who I am at any given moment? Can I do this without judgment or condemnation? Can I see myself as a human being making a very human (and spiritual) journey on an often scary and unknowable path? Can I hold the space for hope, even in hopeless situations? Can I offer myself grace to move through times when hope might fade or disappear? Can I make it okay to have more questions than answers right now – to be at peace with that which is unknowable and that which I cannot control? Can I approach my life with greater fascination than fear? Can I question my faith and beliefs and come to different conclusions? Can I allow myself room to go back to beliefs I once held?
In allowing these questions to arise throughout the transitions of cancer, we just might discover a new and deeper sense of who we are, what we are made of, and what we are connected to. We might discover joy or hope in the unlikeliest of places or find a new understanding of what is true and meaningful to us – a new definition of success, or healing. We might discover deeper dimensions of inner peace, of what it means to love and be loved. These are all hallmarks of the spiritual journey.
Perhaps faith might be just knowing that no matter how difficult the journey, we have what it takes to take the next step forward and trust that we will find meaning – however we define it.
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Dr. Anne Coscarelli is a licensed psychologist, adjunct professor of medicine, and founding director of the Simms/Mann – UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology. Michael Eselun is a certified associate chaplain, providing spiritual support to outpatients with cancer and their families in the Simms/Mann Center, which is part of UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA – an NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, www.SimmsMannCenter.ucla.edu.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2011.