Religion, Spirituality and Coping With Cancer

Andrea CanadaBy Andrea Canada

As a psychologist and member of the Cancer Integrative Medicine Program, one of my goals is to facilitate adaptive coping in patients with cancer. While I am interested in all forms of coping, my primary interest lies in the area of religious/spiritual (R/S) coping and its relationship to health-related outcomes.

In my clinical practice, I always assess if patients utilize R/S coping to deal with cancer, and an overwhelming majority do. In fact, research indicates that 70 to 90 percent of cancer patients use R/S beliefs and practices to cope with the illness experience.

For those patients who do use R/S coping, I also assess whether or not such coping has been helpful. I have found that the majority of cancer patients using R/S coping do so with positive results. Research findings indicate that patients who are able to derive strength and comfort from their R/S beliefs and practices experience less anxiety, improved adjustment, less hopelessness, better quality of life and greater life satisfaction, among other positive outcomes. In fact, I often hear from those patients high in R/S coping that the cancer experience has actually helped them grow in their faith and relationships with others.

While many individuals find the consolation they seek in R/S during the cancer experience, there are some patients for whom the illness may precipitate a period of R/S struggle. My patients experiencing R/S struggle often view their cancer diagnosis as punishment from or abandonment by God. A growing body of evidence indicates that chronic R/S struggle is associated with poorer outcomes in patients with cancer, including greater levels of general distress, anxiety, and depression, higher indices of pain and fatigue, and more difficulties with daily physical functioning.

If you find that R/S resources are serving you well during the cancer experience, by all means, I encourage you to continue along this path. If you are experiencing chronic R/S struggle in response to the cancer experience, I recommend the following:

  • explore R/S concerns with an expert in the Rush Cancer Integrative Medicine Program
  • request a referral to see a Rush chaplain
  • seek assistance for R/S concerns from your own clergy or congregation
  • find a religious or faith-based therapist
  • attend a support group known to address R/S issues

Andrea Canada, PhD, is a psychologist with the Cancer Integrative Medicine Program at Rush University Medical Center. For more information about religious/spirituality and coping with cancer, please contact the Cancer Integrative Medicine Program by calling (312) 563-2531.

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