Coping With Emotions

When Spirituality and Cancer Make You Rethink Your Core Beliefs

When you're facing a serious illness or potentially life-threatening condition, it's a common time to take stock of your values and spiritual beliefs.

One of the core elements of well-being is spirituality, and cancer can sometimes disrupt that. When you’re facing a serious illness or potentially life-threatening condition, it’s natural to take stock of your values, spiritual or otherwise. If you find yourself re-evaluating your beliefs, know it’s more common than you think.

When pondering spirituality, you may not just think of religion, but other forms of spiritual practice, too. Many people consider themselves to be spiritual while avoiding organized religion. The tendency to question your beliefs when confronted with your own mortality is common across different types of faith.

Why This Distress is Natural

According to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, while some cancer patients may feel closer to their spirituality, others go the opposite way. You may question why this is happening to you, and that distress could make going through treatment more difficult. Not everyone experiences this, of course, but a cancer diagnosis is one of those moments where you might stop and think about the big questions around the meaning of life and how you fit into the universe.

This period of questioning may be called a crisis of faith or spiritual distress. Cancer is accompanied by many feelings, some that may feel unfamiliar: anger, doubt, guilt, sadness, insecurity and you may even experience feelings of abandonment by God or the divine. While you may not have a concept of God as a part of you spirituality, for those who do, a sense of being abandoned can be frightening.

This crisis period is usually resolved with some time and thought. After a period of questioning, you may return to your faith, often feeling even more secure after your time of doubt. You may, however, uncover a need to make some changes to your belief structure.

How to Combat Issues of Spirituality and Cancer Treatment

It’s disconcerting to suddenly become unsure of beliefs you once took for granted. This can add more discomfort to an already stressful time. According to a report in the Annals of Oncology, unresolved spiritual distress could lead to poorer quality of life and health. You can work to ease this process and protect your health, mentally and physically.

To start off, seek out another person who shares your faith and understands how cancer can bring up these questions. Other cancer patients deal with this and have possibly resolved it. You can also talk to an interfaith hospital chaplain. They’re trained to help people through exactly this type of crisis, and as an interfaith chaplain, he or she won’t push you towards one faith or another.

Keep a journal and document your feelings and how they change through this process. Start or maintain a gratitude practice with your journal by writing down what you’ve thankful for daily. Initiating an attitude of gratitude while pondering these questions can also bring new perspective to your approach.

To the extent you can, get some exercise. Moving your body could change your perspective and help you come up with new ideas. If exercise is difficult for you, spend some time in nature. You can just hang out in your garden for an hour. It might also be helpful to engage in mindfulness practices, such as meditation, or partake in a favorite hobby.

In addition to the suggestions above, you should talk to your doctor about your feelings. Your well-being as a whole person is important, and spirituality is part of that. If you’re feeling stress around this issue, it’s helpful for your doctor to understand, especially if you have religious concerns around any part of the treatment.

Interfaith chaplains at UVA are available to patients and their family members.

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Judy Schwartz Haley
Judy Schwartz Haley