How Can Spirituality Help Cancer Patients?

Cancer is the #2 leading cause of death in adults. Even among those who do not work in medicine, it is nearly impossible to think of a single person who doesn’t have at least one friend, relative, or loved one who has been diagnosed with cancer.



Every individual’s experience will differ, but anyone who knows someone with cancer is familiar with the emotional toll that comes with this disease. Cancer patients themselves face not only that shattered emotional psyche, but also the constant fear of a poor prognosis, painful treatments, and the possibility of remission once they are cured.

"You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live." -Stuart Scott

With this quote in mind, it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise that many cancer patients turn to religion and spirituality to cope with their disease. One survey reported that while only 45% of the general public in the U.S. prays for their health, approximately 69% of cancer patients do. Being diagnosed with cancer can certainly be a test of faith, and studies throughout the years have mixed conclusions about how spirituality affects the well being of a patient. To address this, a team of researchers recently examined all studies in this area in an analysis that took data from over 44,000 patients.


Results from this study suggest that extremely ill patients who use spiritual coping are often better able manage their disease; such patients also report a better quality of life when they can find solace in their spirituality or religion. Patients who report higher levels of personal spirituality tend to experience fewer physical symptoms of cancer and cancer treatment, as well as being able to still enjoy social connections.

High levels of spirituality and improved feelings of well being are certainly linked. However, it is difficult to determine which direction this correlation is driven—are those who are already spiritual less likely to fall ill? Or are those who fall ill more likely to turn to religion and spirituality to cope with their disease? In other words, the studies weren’t able to show a cause-and-effect relationship between spirituality and improved well being, only the fact that there is an association between the two.

Nurse Poses With Cancer Patient.  By Rhoda Baer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Religion and spirituality may indeed improve health outcomes for cancer patients, but right now there is not enough evidence to definitively say whether or not an individual who is more spiritual would be more likely to beat cancer than an individual who is less spiritual. Future studies will examine this association more closely to determine the exact nature of the relationship between health outcomes and spirituality.

However, surviving cancer often is boosted by personal strength and having a mechanism in place to cope with the struggles of the disease and its treatment. Caregivers can be optimistic about the potential that this study holds in determining how spirituality may positively affect health outcomes.

What do you think? In your experience can spirituality and religion be used to improve health outcomes? Or do you believe this correlation is not linked to causation? Leave your opinion in the comments section below.

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