What is spirituality?
Spirituality is described as an awareness of something greater than the individual self. It is often expressed through religion and prayer, although there are many other ways to express and pursue spirituality.
Studies have found that spirituality, religion, and prayer are very important to quality of life for some people who have been diagnosed with cancer. Research has not shown that spirituality and prayer can cure cancer or any other disease, but they may be a helpful addition to conventional medical care.
The benefits of praying may include:
- reducing stress and anxiety
- promoting a more positive outlook and a stronger will to live
What to expect when you pray
Prayer may be silent or spoken out loud and can be done alone in any setting or in groups (as in a church, temple, or mosque). Regular attendance at a church, temple, or mosque may involve prayer that focuses on you or on others. Sometimes, the entire congregation of a church may be asked to pray for a sick person or the person's family.
Some religions set aside certain times of the day and special days of the week for praying. Standard prayers are often memorized and repeated during private sessions and in groups.
Prayer can also be done individually and in informal groups, without a specific religion or denomination, with no particular schedule. Prayers often ask a higher power for help, understanding, wisdom, or strength in dealing with life's problems.
Spirituality and prayer can take many forms. Meditation, 12-step work (as practiced in Alcoholics Anonymous and similar groups), and seeking meaning in life all involve spirituality. Simple practices such as silent observation, listening, or gratitude can become part of everyday spirituality. Some people choose to express their spirituality by spending time in nature, doing creative work, or serving others.
Research on prayer in people with breast cancer and other types of cancer
Interest in and recognition of how spirituality can help people cope with serious illnesses, including cancer, has been growing. Most studies of spirituality and illness are small. Data from these studies show that spiritual coping may be one of the most powerful ways people draw on their own resources to deal with a serious illness. A high level of spirituality in seriously ill people may be linked to lower anxiety about death.
The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment looked at studies reported in the Journal of Family Practice over a 10-year time period. The review found that 83% of the studies done on spirituality found a positive effect on physical health. Another study looked at 12 years of reports in 2 major psychiatric journals. Of the studies that measured spirituality, 92% showed mental health benefits, 4% showed neither a positive nor negative effect, and 4% showed harm. Spirituality was measured by participation in religious ceremony, social support, prayer, and belief in a higher being.
An analysis of 43 studies on people with advanced cancer said that people who reported spiritual well-being were able to cope better with their illnesses and find meaning in their experience.
In research done specifically on women with breast cancer, spirituality and prayer has been associated with less depression and a more positive sense of well-being.
In one study, the Santa Clara Strength of Religious Faith Questionnaire was used to measure the "religiosity" of 115 women with breast cancer, and depression was measured with the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale. High religiosity was associated with a significantly lower level of depression.
Another study looked at 84 women in Texas who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. The women completed questionnaires about their spirituality and their psychological response to breast cancer. The results showed that prayer was associated with improved psychological well-being.
A study of 112 women with metastatic breast cancer looked at the relationship between the immune system and spirituality. Women who said spiritual expression was important to them had more white blood cells and lymphocytes. Having high levels of these types of cells indicates a healthy immune system. But the study didn't do any follow-up, so we don't know if the higher cell counts had any effect on the women's recovery.
Important things to consider before trying prayer therapy
If spirituality and prayer are important to you, talk to your doctor about the role they play in your life. Knowing what's important to you can help your doctor know how best to take care of you.
Many people believe spirituality 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.
Read our medical experts' opinions about prayer and other complementary treatments in our Ask-the-Expert Online Conference.