While many advances have been made in terms of treating breast cancer, there is still a need to treat the mind and spirit, as well as a need to improve the relationship between patients and healthcare providers. After a diagnosis of breast cancer, there is an immediate focus on your treatment plan, and often this does not include administering to the patient’s mind, spirit and soul. Integrating spirituality into your treatment plan addresses every part of you, and can offer many benefits during your treatment. It is important to note that spirituality differs from religion. While spirituality is defined as the expression or experience of the sacred, the individual search for meaning, the belief in transcendence or belief in a power larger than one’s own existence; religion is connected to an organized system or group of practices and beliefs in which people engage. Some people are connected to a religious institution, and others can be spiritual, but not religious.
What Is Spirituality?
Spirituality concerns the spirit, which is derived from the Latin spiritus, meaning breath. It is the relationship you have with a force or power beyond yourself. This can be God, yourself as a greater being, or a life force or essence that surrounds us all. Spirituality is impacted by cultural traditions, religions practices and upbringing. Some patients may find comfort in childhood traditions while others may turn to new traditions. Spirituality can be a major resource to patients to help them cope with feelings of fear and anxiety during the various stages of the cancer journey. Spiritual moments are moments where you feel connected to a deeper meaning or reality, such as when you feel close to nature, speak with a loved one, or sense a greater power. Some people draw spiritual understanding from philosophy or the arts.
Religion is similar to spirituality in that they both have values and practices that help to guide you through life. The main difference between spirituality and religion is that religion is a faith or belief system that is held by a community. Thus, religion is experienced as part of a group, whereas spirituality is more personal. Some people express their spirituality through religion.
How Can Spirituality Help You During Treatment?
A breast cancer diagnosis can leave you feeling scared, anxious, hopeless, lonely and angry. Facing your mortality can be a daunting thing at any age, an even more so as a young woman. You wonder what the outcome will be, why this is happening to you and often your beliefs and hopes for the future are challenged. Some feel anger towards a higher power or God and a loss of faith. Also, even if you have a strong support network of family and friends, you might feel alone. This is where spirituality comes in. Research has shown that many spirituality can offer many benefits to patients after diagnosis, and into survivorship that help you cope, including: decrease in fear, anger, anxiety and depression; decreased feelings of loneliness and isolation; increased feelings of hope, optimism, and peace; and better quality of life. Integrating spirituality into your traditional and complementary treatment can also improve feelings of well-being and empowerment, which can benefit your treatment. Share with your healthcare team how important your spirituality is to you. This can improve your relationship with your healthcare team.
How Do You Integrate Spirituality Into Your Treatment Plan?
Spiritual practices or rituals offer many benefits that help you cope with your diagnosis, including the following:
- Breathing exercises
- Connecting with nature
- Feng shui
- Guided imagery
- Intentional living
- Listening to music
- Listening to spiritual podcasts
- Prayer beads
- Reading spiritual writings
- Relationship with God
- Tai Chi/Qi Gong
- Visiting sacred places
Studies On Spirituality And Cancer
In a recent survey by CURE, among 1000 cancer patients, survivors and caregivers, 87% of the respondents said that they had a spiritual or religious belief system at the time of diagnosis, 54% said that spirituality had a major role in resolving their cancer journey, and 73% said that they have grown spiritually because of cancer.
One study on the relationship between spiritual wellbeing and psychosocial adjustment found that among 418 patients with breast cancer, patients with a higher meaning/peace score experienced a decrease in depressive symptoms and an increase in vitality across 12 months.
Another study on 165 cancer survivors reported that an increase in meaning/peace was related to improved mental health and lower cancer-related distress.
How Spirituality Can Improve Quality of Life and Survivorship
Spirituality can offer you a sense of personal growth at the time when you’re dealing with your cancer diagnosis, as well as during cancer treatment, and even as a cancer survivor. Spiritual practices can help you adjust to the effects of cancer and its treatment. In fact, patients who rely on their faith or spirituality tend to experience increased hope and optimism, higher satisfaction with life and feelings of inner peace. They also tend to be more compliant with treatment and live a healthier lifestyle.
Spiritual practices can help you put your concerns into perspective, and help you to calm and restore yourself. Studies show that spirituality can have a direct impact on the quality of life. Some benefits of spirituality on your life include i) decreased feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, loneliness and risk of suicide; ii) decreased alcohol and drug use, iii) lowered blood pressure, iv) better control of pain, nausea and discomfort, v) increased positive feelings of optimism, satisfaction with life and inner peace, vi) increased ability to enjoy life during cancer treatment.
Benefits of Integrating Spirituality Into Your Survivorship Plan
The average 5-year survival rate for patients with breast cancer is 90%, and the 10-year survival rate is 83%. This indicates that if you have breast cancer, on average, you have about 80-90% chance of surviving for 5-10 years. These data have led to increasing focus on developing guidelines and resources for helping patients cope with challenges after cancer and with their survivorship plan overall. Integrating spirituality into your survivorship plan offers benefits to providers, caregivers and to children.
- Benefits to Providers: As a healthcare provider, your relationship with the patient may include conversations about their spirituality and how that impacts their treatment and care. During these discussions, you may be inspired to either develop or strengthen your own spiritual practices. Spirituality is also a great way for providers to deal with burnout, attrition, and avoiding medical errors. Spirituality may also help to strengthen the physician-patient relationship by building trust and rapport and thus increasing effectiveness of the physician.
- Benefits to Caregivers: With the increased longevity of patients with cancer, the role of caregivers increases as well. Caregivers are typically family members and friends, and caring for their loved one can be emotionally challenging, as there is usually a sudden onset of the illness – and notably, one that is life-threatening. Further, caregivers may need to provide a significantly higher amount of care and support as the disease progresses. During this process, you can find comfort and a sense of balance through your spiritual beliefs and practices.
- Benefits to Children: The cancer experience can be a stressful process that affects family members, especially children. In some cases, children are the ones who are taking care of their mothers with cancer. In other cases, where the children are young, they are perhaps more vulnerable as they don’t quite understand what is happening, and they are particularly worried about losing their mothers. If the child is a female, she may be worried about getting breast cancer too. As a child of a mother who is a cancer survivor, you may find that spirituality is an important resource to help you through this journey. You may also find that shared spiritual practices with your mother can be quite enjoyable for the both of you.
How To Integrate Spirituality Into Your Treatment Plan
To integrate spiritual care as part of your comprehensive cancer treatment plan, be your own advocate and speak with your medical team about your concerns about spirituality – whether it is to say that you would like spirituality to be important component of your care, or that you’d like more information on the topic. Your doctor will likely start this conversation with through a spiritual assessment. They would likely move on to suggest spiritual care interventions, such as guiding you to resources to help you meditate, or they may suggest that you keep a journal, participate in support groups or speak with a chaplin.
Benefits of Spirituality for You
It is not fully understood how spirituality is related to health, but spirituality seems to help patients develop and maintain a positive attitude that makes them feel better and improve their well-being. This may help the patient live longer.
- Physical Well-Being: In recent studies, cancer patients who reported strong spirituality and religiousness also reported better physical health and less physical symptoms of cancer. Further, the patients who integrated cancer into their religious and spiritual beliefs had better physical health.
- Mental Health: In the same studies as mentioned above, researchers reported that cancer patients with emotional aspects of religion and spirituality exhibited positive mental health. In other words, these patients had less anxiety, depression or distress.
- Social Health: With regard to patient’s ability to maintain roles and relationships in society in the face of illness, patients with stronger spiritual well-being reported better social health.
Using Your Diagnosis as a Catalyst
- At cancer diagnosis: As a newly diagnosed patient, you may pray for a cure. However, if a cure is not in sight, you may seek to find meaning in your life and your existence. In fact, many newly diagnosed cancer patients look for emotional healing from a spiritual relationship. On the other hand, a cancer diagnosis may make you experience spiritual distress. You may call into question the existence of a higher power – you may doubt your beliefs and religious values and wonder why you are being punished. One thing to consider is that you can take control of how you live the rest of your life. You can shift your perspective into that of a warrior, a victor and chart out how you will live from here onwards, no matter what happens.
- During cancer treatment: You may find yourself experiencing a series of ups and downs. During these times, you should try to remain positive and know that sometimes what threatens our lives can actually strengthen the life within us. With spirituality, you can gain insight into the meaning of your illness. You may even gain an understanding of any existential challenges that you encounter. You can continue to lead a good and happy life, one that is full of purpose.
- After cancer treatment: At the time when you no longer have surgeries or radiation treatments, or hair loss, you may wonder how to return to you “old” self. You may find yourself worrying about the possibility of cancer recurrence. It is important that you learn to balance living life while monitoring for recurring symptoms. Continued spiritual practice can help you achieve this balance. Spirituality may also help you understand what having cancer means to your life now.
- At end of life: Whether you have been diagnosed with cancer or not, end of life decisions have a big spiritual component. If you believe that there is more to this physical life on Earth, you may be hopeful and find it easier to accept this as a natural part of your journey. Your spiritual practice will also affect how much anxiety you feel about death, and it may guide you through your decisions about end-of-life treatments.
Tips For Strengthening Your Spirit
- Mediate or pray regularly. During challenging times, meditating or praying can help you remain calm and hopeful.
- Read spiritual writings. Sacred texts such as the Bhagavad Gita provides information about ancient traditions of wisdom. Reading these materials may help you feel a sense of connection with a more divine reality.
- Reach out to others for help. Speaking to someone about how you are feeling, your fears, thoughts and concerns, can help you feel a sense of peace. You may consider speaking with a counselor, your clergy, or joining a support group.
- Reflect quietly in nature: Take in the natural beauty around you, breathe and reflect on your inner peace. Seeing untouched nature can fill you with a sense of wonderment and peace. This can have a calming effect on you, as it takes your attention away from the illness.
- Visit spiritual places and works of art. Visiting spiritual places, places of historical significance and places with art and sculpture may help you appreciate the various sights and sounds, especially if you do i in a more focused manner.
- Write down your feelings, thoughts and memories. Record your concerns and emotions that your experience. Also, anything that gives meaning to your life.
- Have someone else pray for you. Having someone who cares deeply about your well-being can help eliminate your feeling of loneliness.
- Repeat a passage from an important spiritual or religious text. The act of repeating important text as if it were a mantra, using language if your religion in your prayers, can have a calming effect.
- Practice yoga. Yoya is a relaxation technique that can provide an outlet to calm and rejunevate your mind and body. Yoga is a combination of breathing, relaxation and meditation exercises.
Having The Spirituality Talk With Your Medical Team
Your spiritual needs are unique and personal to you, and they are based on your cultural and religious traditions. For this reason, you may feel uncertain about how to bring up the subject of spirituality with your medical team. But you need not worry. As a patient, you should be able to count on your medical team for support. Since health care professionals are becoming more comfortable with discussing spirituality with patients, you will likely find that broaching the topic is quite easy. Medical professionals are also becoming more aware that spiritual beliefs can impact patients’ attitudes about the cancer journey. You should make your medical team aware of any spiritual beliefs so that all of your concerns, practices or needs can be respected and addressed in a supportive and appropriate manner. In some cases, the medical team will set goals and plan a treatment that fits with your spiritual needs. To incorporate spirituality in your health care plan, some hospitals have departments to help you cope any spiritual-related questions or concerns. In addition, your medical team may:
- Suggest goals and options for care that honor your spiritual and/or religious views.
- Support your use of spiritual coping during the illness.
- Encourage you to speak with his/her religious or spiritual leader.
- Refer you to a hospital chaplain or to a support group to help you with spiritual issues during illness. Keep in mind that even if the chaplin may not share similar spiritual values as you, they have likely helped many other patients along their cancer journey. They are a great source of solace.
- Refer you to other therapies that have been shown to increase spiritual well-being. These include yoga, meditation and creative programs.