Over the last century, scientific and technological advances have shifted medical care from a service-oriented model towards a cure-driven model. While these medical developments have profoundly impacted our ability to live longer, healthier lives, they have also changed the relationship between patients and their physicians.
Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, a pioneer of the mind/body holistic health movement and co-founder of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, writes: “Helping, fixing, and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.”
Integrating spirituality with cancer care treats patients as a whole person, addressing not only their physical symptoms, but also their emotional, social and spiritual needs.
What is Spirituality and Religiosity?
Spirituality and religiosity are different.
Spirituality is the awareness of something greater than the individual self. Being in touch with our spiritual self means embracing our connectedness to that which gives our life meaning and purpose.
Religiosity is a specific set of beliefs or practices connected to an organized group. Some people express their spirituality through religion. For other people, spirituality is not about practicing specific religious beliefs, but about exploring and deepening their relationship with themselves and a higher power.
Many cancer patients would describe themselves as spiritual, but not necessarily religious.
How Can Spirituality Help in Cancer Care?
Cancer provokes a spiritual crisis in many patients. Individuals may feel overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety, anger, grief, loss and hopelessness. Cancer patients ask themselves: “Why me? Why now? What is the meaning of this?” Patients must struggle with their own mortality as they face the very real questions, “Will I survive?” and “What happens next?” For some patients, a diagnosis of cancer may shake their belief system. They may experience anger towards their God and a crisis of faith.
Many cancer patients feel like they are lost in a crowd. Despite being surrounded by family, friends, loved ones and support groups, they still feel alone. As patients search to find meaning in their lives and relationships, spirituality can help. Expressing feelings of shaken belief, anger and doubt in a higher power can also be therapeutic. For individuals struggling with a spiritual crisis, speaking with a religious or spiritual leader can provide space for safe expression of anger, doubt, and fear. A spiritual or religious leader may be able to help cancer patient by listening and providing guidance. Watch a short video on “Chaplains Speak About Spirit”
Studies indicate that the majority of patients rely upon spirituality to help them better cope with their cancer and treatment. Incorporating spirituality into treatment decreases depression while increasing well being, sense of autonomy, and personal satisfaction. Benefits of incorporating spirituality into cancer treatment include:
- Decreased anxiety, depression anger and discomfort
- Decreased feelings of isolation, loneliness and risk of suicide
- Assistance helping patients adjust to the physical and emotional effects of cancer treatments
- Increased ability to enjoy life during cancer treatment
- Increased positive feelings, including optimism, freedom from regret, satisfaction with life and inner peace
Studies also report that those who practice spirituality have improved health-related outcomes:
Regardless of an individual’s personal beliefs, addressing the emotional anxieties associated with a cancer diagnosis has an important positive impact on an individual’s quality of life and ability to complete treatment. Integrating spirituality with conventional medical care and complementary therapies may also improve the efficacy of overall care.
How can I integrate spirituality into my cancer care?
Spirituality can take many forms and is unique to each individual. Spiritual practices that may help you cope with your cancer and its treatments include:
- Taking the time regularly to meditate or pray (i.e. alone or with your clergy or counselor, a group for meditation, prayer and support, etc.)
- Reading spiritual writings (i.e. the Bible, Koran, Bhagavad Gita, other faith-based texts, contemporary books on spirituality, etc.)
- Retreat to spiritual places, natural settings, listen to music, visit museums, keep a journal, guided imagery or any place/activity that helps you cultivate a sense of peace.
Each of us has a unique path for our own spiritual journey. It is not uncommon to hear from my patients that their diagnosis of cancer started a process of inward refection to find strength and deeper meaning in their lives.
Spirituality in Cancer Care (National Cancer Institute PDQ)
Spirituality and Prayer (American Cancer Institute)
The Role of Spirituality After Cancer Treatment (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute)
Finding Comfort in Spirituality (National Comprehensive Cancer Network)
“FICA” Spiritual Assessment Tool– developed to to help physicians and other healthcare professionals address spiritual issues with patients. They also have a great online course, Spiritual Assessment in Clinical Practice, for healthcare providers on learning about how to do a spiritual assessment: assessing the spiritual beliefs, values, and practices important in your patients’ responses to illness or stress. (The George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health)