Study: Cancer Patients with Strong Religious or Spiritual Beliefs Report Better Health

happy woman walking with arms spread through field of wheat

When Gregg Carr was diagnosed with lung cancer, he turned to his faith to help him find meaning during difficult times. “This cancer has helped me renew my spirituality. I’m convinced God wants me to help more people,” said Carr. After 4 months of aggressive and often painful treatment, Carr says he now feels well enough to return to work. In his small town in Illinois, he often counsels others facing their own cancer diagnosis.

Carr is far from alone in finding comfort and meaning through religion during cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 69% of cancer patients say they pray for their health. A recent study published in Cancer, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, suggests a link between religious or spiritual beliefs and better physical health reported among patients with cancer.

“In our observational study, we found people who found feelings of transcendence or meaningfulness or peace reported feeling the least physical problems,” said lead author Heather Jim, PhD. “A lot of cancer patients have a reaction when diagnosed of ‘Why me?’ or feel like they’re being punished or get angry. This is a normal part of coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis.”

For the report, researchers from Moffitt Cancer Center and colleagues looked at the results of several published studies on the topic, which included more than 32,000 cancer patients combined. They found a link between patients with higher levels of spiritual well-being and reporting better physical health. The researchers did not look at whether spiritual well-being affected patient survival or cancer recurrence.

The authors defined religion as belonging to a religious organization and attending organized services, while spirituality is a connection to a force larger than oneself. For some people, religion is an expression of their spirituality, while others find spirituality outside of organized religion.

The authors say religion and spirituality can help cancer patients find meaning in their illness and provide comfort in the face of fear. These patients might also be more likely to get practical help that aids in their recovery, because they are often connected to a community of people who share their beliefs and can provide meals, help around the house, rides to medical appointments, and other types of hands-on care.

Coping with cancer

According to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), while a cancer diagnosis can encourage some people to renew their faith, it can have the opposite effect on others. For them, a diagnosis can challenge their faith and make them doubt their beliefs or religious values. They may become angry at God or doubt the existence of a higher power. The NCCN says feeling this way can make it harder for patients to cope with cancer and its treatment. It can be helpful and healthy to talk to someone who can understand these feelings of doubt and anger.

Jim adds that there are ways for people who are non-believers or who are not affiliated with an organized religion to benefit from the findings of the study.

“People can think about what’s meaningful to them, what brings them a sense of peace and tranquility. It’s different for everyone,” said Jim. “Meditating, getting out in nature, spending time with loved ones, and volunteering are all associated with positive health benefits.”

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Religion, Spirituality, and Physical Health in Cancer Patients: A Meta-Analysis. Published online August 10, 2015 in Cancer. First author Heather S. L. Jim, PhD, Moffit Cancer Center, Tampa, Fla.

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