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Cancer and Spirituality

Cancer and Spirituality

People with cancer often tap into their spiritual side when battling the illness. This might include prayer, attending religious services, reading passages from a holy book, or simply expressing gratitude and love. Although spiritual activities have not been proved to heal or lessen cancer, many people find that religion can help them better deal with being sick.  

Woman reading a bible

Hospitals recognize that spirituality can play a crucial role in healing and usually have a chapel and offer visits from pastors, rabbis, clerics, and others to patients who want them.

How spirituality may help

You may experience some of these benefits of spirituality when dealing with cancer:

  • Less depression. A significant number of people with cancer battle depression, but studies show that cancer patients with high levels of spiritual well-being are less likely to be depressed. Finding inner peace can better help you to enjoy life, despite the fear, exhaustion, and pain that may occur during cancer treatment. Many patients also report a stronger will to live.

  • A buffer against stress and anxiety. People with high levels of spirituality may be less worried about the prospect of their cancer recurring or progressing. Spirituality can also act as a buffer against the stress of cancer treatment, even when treatments become more aggressive and, in turn, debilitating.

  • Reduced side effects. Meditation—a spiritual activity that involves mental focusing to relax the mind—may help control or lessen some of the unpleasant physical side effects of cancer treatment. Massage, meditation, and yoga have been shown to help ease lymphedema, the build-up of fluid in the body's tissues that commonly occurs during cancer treatment.

  • Comfort at the end of life. If someone with cancer is nearing death, he or she may find comfort through certain religious customs or rituals. The patient's family may also be more at peace with a religious or spiritually-oriented funeral or memorial service. Terminally ill cancer patients should openly discuss their spiritual preferences with their families and doctors well in advance to ensure that their wishes are honored. 

  • Greater feelings of personal growth. People who engage in spiritual activities during their cancer treatment may be more likely to feel that the experience of being ill has changed them for the better. On the other hand, religious people who feel angry at or forsaken by their god may have a harder time dealing with the difficult emotions related to their illness.  

Cautions about faith healing

Some people believe that their cancer can be cured through prayer or other religious activities rather than conventional treatments. Although there have been reports of prayer leading to tumor regression, religious practices have not been scientifically shown to cure any physical illnesses. Some people who undergo faith healing sessions may feel better after the experience, but experts believe this may be because of the placebo effect, an improvement in symptoms that occurs because of a person's belief that the treatment will work. Symptom relief from the placebo effect is usually short-lived.

Cancer patients who choose to refuse or delay traditional medical treatments in favor of faith healing may have serious health consequences. Participating in faith-based activities, however, may help improve or maintain quality of life during the most agonizing parts of your illness.

Friends and family of cancer patients should be sensitive to their loved ones' feelings and beliefs about religion. People with cancer who don't believe in prayer, for example, may not want to know that an entire congregation is praying for them. Those who do not believe in any particular religion may not want a visit from the hospital chaplain. If you have a loved one facing cancer, be sure to ask what his or her wishes are before you request spiritual assistance for them. 

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