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Spirituality and Prayer

Other common name(s): religion, spiritual healing

Scientific/medical name(s): none


Spirituality is generally described as an awareness of something greater than the individual self. It is often expressed through religion and/or prayer, although there are many other paths of spiritual pursuit and expression.


Although available research has not supported claims that spirituality or prayer can cure cancer or any other disease, spiritual well-being is linked to better quality of life in people with cancer.

How is it promoted for use?

Some proponents of spirituality in the context of health claim that prayer can decrease the negative effects of disease, speed recovery, and increase the effectiveness of medical treatments. Faith and religious beliefs are also thought to improve coping and provide comfort during illness. Attendance at religious events and services is sometimes linked with improvement of various health conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, stroke, colitis, cancers, and overall health status. Scientific evidence is mixed.

Certain religious groups claim prayer can cure any disease. These groups often rely entirely on prayer in place of conventional medicine. This belief is based on a spiritual rather than a biological explanation of how disease develops. There have been some reported cases of tumor regression occurring after prayer. (See our document, Faith Healing for more information.)

Many people believe the spiritual dimension is important when a person is coping with serious illness. The ability to find meaning in life can be helpful when dealing with cancer, even though it cannot cure the disease. Spirituality may also help us accept illness and death, both for ourselves and for those we love.

What does it involve?

Spirituality has many forms and can be practiced in many ways. Prayer, for example, may be silent, spoken aloud, sung, or chanted. It can be performed alone in any setting; or it can be done in groups, such as in a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple. Regular attendance at a place of worship may involve prayer that focuses on one's self (called supplication) or on others (called intercessory prayer). In this setting, the entire congregation may be asked to pray for a sick person or the person’s family.

Some religions set aside certain times of day and days of the week for prayer. Standard prayers written by religious leaders are often memorized and repeated in private sessions and in groups. Prayer is also practiced individually and in informal groups, without a specific religion or denomination, and on no particular schedule. Prayers often ask a higher being for help, understanding, wisdom, or strength in dealing with life's problems.

Spirituality can also be practiced without a formal religion. Meditation, twelve-step work (as practiced in Alcoholics Anonymous and similar groups), and seeking meaning in life all involve spirituality. Even simple practices such as silent observation, listening, or gratitude can become part of an open-ended spirituality that can infuse everyday life. Some people express their spirituality by spending time with nature, doing creative work, or serving others.

Many medical institutions and practitioners include spirituality and prayer as important components of healing. In addition, hospitals have chapels and contracts with ministers, rabbis, clerics, and voluntary organizations to serve their patients’ spiritual needs.

What is the history behind it?

Since the beginning of recorded history, all cultures throughout the world have developed systems of religion and spirituality. Earlier religions of ancient Egypt and Greece have given way to more modern religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism.

Within each culture, some form of spirituality and prayer has served as the institutionalized means of seeking assistance from a supreme being or beings perceived as powerful enough to alter nature, health, and disease. Different religions hold different beliefs about a supreme being. Today, spirituality is practiced by billions of people throughout the world, both within and outside the framework of formal religion.

What is the evidence?

Religion and health. Studies done on the impact of prayer and spirituality often focus on the effect of religious beliefs and behavior on health, survival, and quality of life. For many of these studies, results have been mixed. Although some research has found that religious groups with orthodox beliefs and behavior have lower cancer death rates, this may be due to healthier habits. For example, some religious groups ban smoking, limit food intake, and drink little or no alcohol. These factors often help promote good health outcomes and lower cancer risk.

The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment reported that a survey of articles published in the Journal of Family Practice over ten years found that 83% of studies on religiosity found a benefit in physical health. Another study of 2 major psychiatric journals over 12 years found that for the studies that measured religiosity, 92% showed a benefit for mental health, 4% were neutral, and 4% showed harm. Religiosity was measured by participation in religious ceremony, social support, prayer, and belief in a higher being.

Prayer and health. Research has also been conducted on the effects of intercessory prayer in coronary care patients. In the late 1980s, a study in San Francisco reported that heart patients who were prayed for by others appeared to have fewer complications, although length of hospital stay and death rates did not differ between those who were prayed for and those who were not. A larger study at a Kansas City hospital coronary care unit reported similar findings. Although overall length of hospital stay and time in the critical care unit did not differ between groups, the group that had been prayed for had 11% fewer complications. These results suggested that prayer might be helpful when used with conventional medical care, although more research was needed to be sure. The studies drew a great deal of public attention, and several other studies were done to confirm the findings, with mixed results. When a research group reanalyzed 14 of these studies as one group (since larger groups tend to modulate the effects of random chance to give more accurate results), they concluded that intercessory prayer had no effect on any medical outcomes.

In a further study, a group of Harvard researchers studied more than 1,800 patients who were undergoing heart surgery in 2006. The patients were randomly assigned to 3 groups. The first group was told that prayers would be said for them, while the second and third groups were told that they might or might not have prayers said for them. The first and second groups received prayer, and the third group did not. Complications occurred within 30 days for 59% of the first group, 52% of the second group, and 51% of the third group. Prayer did not reduce complications for those who had heart surgery in this large, well-controlled scientific study. Available scientific evidence does not support claims of reduced complications or improved medical outcomes in those who receive prayer.

Spiritual well-being and coping. An analysis of 43 studies on people with advanced cancer noted that those who reported spiritual well-being were able to cope more effectively with terminal illnesses and find meaning in their experience. Major themes of spiritual well-being included self-awareness, coping with stress, connectedness with others, faith, empowerment, confidence, and the ability to live with meaning and hope.

A more recent study found that spiritual well-being was linked with lower distress levels in people who had been treated for colorectal cancer. The researchers reported that the factors with the strongest link to lower emotional distress were finding peace and meaning in their lives. This result would suggest that spiritual well-being might mean less emotional distress at several stages of cancer.

Are there any possible problems or complications?

Patient consent is important before conducting any activity that may affect health. Those who do not believe in prayer and those who do not wish to be healed are among those who may not want to be the object of intercessory prayer.

Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.

To learn more

More information from your American Cancer Society

The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-227-2345).

Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?

The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management

Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer

Placebo Effect

Learning About New Ways to Treat Cancer

Learning About New Ways to Prevent Cancer


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Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.

Last Medical Review: 12/07/2012
Last Revised: 12/07/2012