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Spirituality is common among the general population, including those with major health problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 69 percent of patients living with cancer pray for health. This faith may have a real impact on wellness, even increasing life expectancy. Numerous studies have shown cancer patients with strong faith cope better with illness, have better mental health, and are in better shape physically.
Religion and Spirituality as Coping Mechanisms
Most Americans believe in a higher power, whether they call it God or something else. Spirituality and religion are important to most people, and there are many reasons to seek God after a cancer or mesothelioma diagnosis. Spiritual practice can reduce anxiety and depression, and help patients come to terms with their physical limitations and their own mortality.
While religion and spirituality are not the same, both have a positive impact on those living with cancer. Belief in God and an association with organized religion can be powerful tools for coping with the reality of cancer.
A serious illness like mesothelioma can naturally lead to spiritual distress. Someone newly diagnosed may begin to doubt their faith. However, those who find solace in their religious beliefs and practices find it a lifeline for difficult times to come.
A Connection to Religion Improves Mental Health
One report analyzing multiple studies of cancer patients and religious beliefs found that spirituality and faith have a positive impact on mental health. Cancer patients with faith in God or some other higher power experienced lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. The study also found the opposite was true. Cancer patients who felt disconnected from God, or felt spiritual distress, were more likely to suffer mental health problems. A connection to religion and spirituality is an important way cancer patients can find peace in times of despair.
Patients with Faith Report Better Physical Health
Another recent study published in the journal Cancer reported patients with strong spiritual or religious beliefs are physically healthier compared to those who do not rely on faith. The study compared different types of psychological and spiritual reactions patients had to living with cancer. Some patients were angry, feeling as if they were being punished. However patients who found a sense of peace and transcendence about their cancer reported feeling better physically.
This was a large and extensive study, including over 32,000 patients with various types of cancer. The link between spiritual well-being and physical health was strong. The study did not examine how spirituality affected survival. However, it did find faith has a powerful effect on physical well-being, health, and comfort. Patients with belief in a higher power or a sense of spirituality experienced fewer symptoms, both from their cancer and treatments. Patients with religion or spirituality were also able to continue performing daily chores and activities.
Faith as Social Support
In the above study, researchers hypothesized that social support may play a role in fostering the connection between health and spirituality. They suggested people with strong faith are more likely to have a strong social support system. This network of people not only provides spiritual support. A spiritual network can also offer practical help in the form of meals, chores, and rides to medical appointments.
People who attend church or other religious services regularly have a built-in social network. Social support is a powerful way to cope with illness. Religious groups tend to gather around those in their communities who need help and support, especially those battling cancer.
Religious Belief and Cancer Survival Rates
Other studies are delving into how religion can impact survival. One specific study found that when older adults, with or without cancer, attended regular religious services, they had lower levels of Interleukin-6, a chemical implicated in tumor growth. These older adults also had stronger immune systems, an important factor in battling cancer. Other studies have found a similar connection between spirituality and immune health, influencing survival and longevity.
Although research is limited regarding spiritually active cancer patients and life expectancy, there are studies that show faith improves physical health, which could lengthen survival. One study found that mortality was lower in people who regularly attended religious services. Other studies have found that faith-based communities can improve cancer survival rates by holding educational and screening events that help members get diagnosed earlier.
Faith and spirituality is not easy to measure. However, people who believe in God and belong to a religious community, fare better when diagnosed with cancer, including mesothelioma. It can be easy to lose faith in the face of a cancer diagnosis. However, on to belief can have a powerful and positive impact.
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by Anne Courtney, AOCNP, DNP
Anne Courtney has a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and is an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner. She has years of oncology experience working with patients with malignant mesothelioma, as well as other types of cancer. Dr. Courtney currently works at University of Texas LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes.