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For Any Cancer Diagnosis

Q. I am a spiritual person and believe that prayer works. My 94-year-old aunt now has bladder cancer. How can I use the power of prayer to help her and my cousins?

A.

Prayer can be a wonderful way to be helpful to others. It is not even necessary to believe in God or a Higher Power to pray. Buddhists, for instance, do not believe in God according to the Western understanding of a divine being, but they pray nevertheless. You can think of prayer in its simplest form as sending out positive energy into the universe. Where this energy goes or what it does is more a matter of mystery than of science and is a topic of much debate. However, prayer considered as a form of complementary therapy certainly does not hurt and may be beneficial.

Praying for someone can be a way to help at times when it may appear that there is little you can do. You can pray for the person with cancer, for those who are caregivers (such as your cousins), and even for the doctors who are providing the treatment. Prayer can be very powerful on many levels — emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual — both for the person who is praying and the person for whom the prayers are offered.

Prayer can be done individually or in groups. Via the telephone or internet, requests for prayer can be sent to many people. Receiving prayers, whether on a local, national or even global scale, can be a great source of comfort and support.

Here are a few suggestions regarding the use of prayer:

  • Be easy on yourself; there is no “right” way to pray. Prayer is a very personal experience, so be honest and let it be your own.
  • You might not feel like praying and that’s okay. There might be other times you will feel like doing so.
  • Prayer can also be symbolic – examples may include going to a sacred place, touching a memorable object, or looking at a photograph.

Q. My cancer has just come back, and I feel really let down by my faith. Is this normal, and is there something that could help me through this crisis?

A.

The Chinese word for “crisis,” wēijī is composed of two characters: wēi, which means “danger,” and jī, which means “turning point.”

A spiritual crisis can certainly be a “turning point” in your life – one in which you reevaluate what is important in life, reexamine your faith, and maybe even find a new faith or spiritual tradition that makes more sense to you based on your experience. It can present “danger” in the sense that sometimes, if you reject your faith during a critical time, you may lose the opportunity to be comforted by your beliefs.

There can be times when it seems that God, or the higher power you believe in, is not present in the midst of our suffering. One option is to believe that. Another option is to look deeper and try to find evidence of this higher power’s presence, for instance in the caring words of those around us. You might see such signs of compassion and empathy – one person showing interest or concern for another. But perhaps these are the means by which divine or universal love is made manifest.

Many faith traditions have written materials to address the issue of a spiritual crisis. You may also find it more helpful to speak in person with a clergy person of your faith, or contact a local interfaith center if you prefer to speak with someone outside of your own tradition, about your feelings.

Q. I'm currently in treatment and having a hard time leaving the house, even for doctor's appointments or going to church. I've heard that some members of my church have been able to receive assistance from the parish. Do you know what type of help is available?

A.

Being connected with a faith-based community not only can provide a source of spiritual comfort and support, it can also be of help with practical assistance. Many faiths put a high priority on service to others, especially people who are dealing with illness. Depending on its size and how many staff members it has, a congregation is a rich resource that can be mobilized with just a phone call to the person or committee in charge of outreach to people in need.

The type of help a congregation offers could include home visits by clergy or another member, meal deliveries to patients and their families who may be too exhausted to cook, or someone to accompany you to your appointments. Sometimes a congregation member will volunteer to “stand in” for your own caregiver for a few hours at a time so that your caregiver can go out to do the shopping or run other errands. A congregation might also provide transportation for getting to and from medical appointments or religious services. Some congregations may also have discretionary funds that can help out their members who are facing financial emergencies.

Most important is to be clear and explicit about what your most pressing needs are and what kind of help you are seeking. Asking for help is never easy, but faith communities are designed to respond in a supportive way to those who are in difficult situations.

You might also find assistance by searching a database maintained by a volunteer interfaith initiative called Faith in Action, which helps connect people with specific needs to faith communities that might offer appropriate assistance.

Q. I was raised in a non-religious household and was never exposed to any spiritual or religious practices or ideas. How can spirituality help me cope with my cancer?

A.

Spirituality can be defined in multiple ways, but primarily it has to do with the idea of connectedness. The word “spirit” comes from the Latin root spiritus, which literally means “breath.” Connecting with the spiritual part of ourselves means getting in touch with that which gives us life, not only in the biological sense, but also in terms of what gives our life meaning and purpose.

One approach to spirituality is found in the Buddhist concept of mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness means being present in the moment and fully aware of what is going on, both inside and outside of yourself. Walking through a beautiful garden, listening to music, or even taking a shower or eating a meal can be considered spiritual if the element of mindfulness is present. Being in a state of mindfulness can provide a sense of calm and enhance the quality of daily life.

You might also consider reading some of the sacred texts, such as the Bible, the Koran, or Bhagavata. The spiritual traditions of both East and West have explored the question of why people suffer – often the “why” question of cancer. Faith-based texts, which were written and refined over centuries, can provide insights and new perspectives on suffering. They can also be a source of comfort and guidance.

Another benefit of spirituality comes from having a community of people who share similar beliefs. In difficult times, this community can serve as a resource to fall back on. Members of a spiritual community can reach out to the individual or family through phone calls, visits, prayer lists, and other ways.

For more information read CancerCare’s fact sheet, Strengthening the Spirit.