How Does Religion and Spirituality Affect Those Struggling with Cancer?

Religion and spirituality can have a positive impact on cancer outcomes.

Religion and spirituality can have a positive impact on cancer outcomes.

A recent study revealed that most individuals with cancer have religious and spiritual beliefs, which can have a positive impact on their physical well-being. Analyses of all published studies on the topic, including more than 44,000 patients, revealed a new perspective on the association between religion and spirituality with cancer patients’ mental, social and physical health.

While the analyses point to significant associations between religion and spirituality with overall health, there was wide variability among studies regarding how different dimensions of religion and spirituality relate to different aspects of health.

The first analysis focused on physical health in cancer patients. Overall, patients who reported greater religiousness and spirituality also reported better physical health, greater ability to perform their usual daily tasks, and fewer physical symptoms of cancer and treatment.

“These relationships were particularly strong in patients who experienced greater emotional aspects of religion and spirituality, including a sense of meaning and purpose in life as well as a connection to a source larger than oneself,” said lead author Heather Jim, PhD, of the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.

Dr. Jim also stated that patients who reported greater cognitive aspects of religion and spirituality, including the ability to integrate cancer into their religious beliefs, also reported better physical health. However, physical health was not related to behavioral aspects of religion and spirituality, such as attending church, prayer or meditation.

The second analysis examined patients’ mental health. Researchers found that the emotional aspects of religion and spirituality were more strongly associated with positive mental health than behavioral or cognitive aspects of religion and spirituality. According to researchers, spiritual well-being was related to less anxiety, depression, and distress, an unsurprising find for those involved in the analysis.

In the third analysis, the capacity of patients to retain social roles and relationships in the face of illness was studied.

“When we took a closer look, we found that patients with stronger spiritual well-being, more benign images of God (such as perceptions of a benevolent rather than an angry or distant God), or stronger beliefs (such as convictions that a personal God can be called upon for assistance), reported better social health,” said lead author Allen Sherman, PhD, of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. “In contrast, those who struggled with their faith fared more poorly.”

Going forward, the analysis concluded that future research should incorporate how relationships between religious or spiritual involvement and health change over time. Additionally, studies should focus on whether support services designed to enhance particular aspects of religion and spirituality in interested patients might help improve their well-being.