Spiritual and religious practices and beliefs may help you to cope with the pain of cancer and with the uncertainty and fear of a cancer diagnosis. Many people rely on faith to make sense of their lives and to feel connected to others — but you may also be looking for a connection to something larger: This could be some form of higher power or “god;” or maybe the worlds of nature, music or art; or even a deep attachment to the people you love. For some people, spirituality comes in the form of organized religion, but this certainly is not necessary. Spirituality is found in all cultures and – for many people – it also includes a search for the meaning of life.
Making sense of a frightening diagnosis
All of us, whether we have cancer or not, are challenged at some point to make sense of the things that rock the stability of our lives. A diagnosis of cancer often prompts the question, “Why me?” Does getting cancer mean that we’re being punished? Sometimes we get angry, and whatever faith we may have had is shaken.
Instead of focusing on anger, fear, blame, or guilt, though, some people see a cancer diagnosis as a test to be overcome, and one that may lead to further strength. One study found, for example, that patients who use faith to cope feel stronger emotionally; their faith may lead to finding meaning and purpose in their illness.
The power of spirituality during cancer treatment
There is evidence that cancer patients who feel connected to a higher power, and are involved in spiritual practices, have more energy, suffer less from their pain, have more inner peace, and cope better with cancer treatment than those who do not. Spiritual well-being, especially a sense of meaning and peace, allows cancer patients to continue to enjoy life in spite of high levels of pain or fatigue. In his book, The Relaxation Response, Dr. Hebert Benson of Harvard Medical School said, “Faith is often an invisible force which carries great healing power…It is a supremely potent belief.”
One published report showed that feeling good about one’s religious involvement and spirituality seems to be linked with better health and a longer life. Another study found that women with breast cancer that had spread, who also felt that their spirituality was important, actually had higher amounts of cancer-fighting cells in their bodies. Other researchers found that going to religious services on a regular basis was linked to having an immune system that worked better.
Tapping into the power of spirituality
These research studies don’t mean that you should suddenly start going to church, synagogue, or a mosque if that’s not your lifestyle. They do, however, give us some clues about how to increase spirituality in our own lives during all phases of cancer:
- Personal prayer. Whether you follow a specific religion or not, sometimes simply praying to a higher power for strength to cope with a diagnosis, or with painful tests or treatments, can be helpful. Praying with others or asking others to pray for you can be comforting, too, because it gives a sense of not being alone in your suffering: You are part of a healing, loving community.
- Mindfulness practices like meditation or yoga have been shown to help people manage their pain and have a better quality of life, whether they are in treatment or in remission. These practices, which involve clearing the mind by focusing on the breath, keep you in the moment: You are not re-living the past (which is already gone), or worrying about the future (which is not yet here). If you can bring this kind of mindful attention into your everyday life, so much the better: Notice the colors of the leaves, the feeling of air on your skin, the beauty of your surroundings, the sound of your favorite music, or the words of your loved ones — all of these are moments that you can enjoy as they are happening.
- Trust in god or a higher power. Some people believe that their higher power has a plan for them: “He (or she or it) will not give me more than I can handle, and will guide me to make the right decisions.” This can be a comforting belief.
- Avoid anger, shame, and blame. These emotions get in the way of your recovery and have no place in cancer treatment. Instead, focus on hope, and be fully alive in every moment of your life.
National Cancer Institute. (2008). Spirituality in cancer care. Retrieved 7/1/08 from www.cancer.gov.