Cancer Patients with Strong Religious or Spiritual Beliefs Report Better Health

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.

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