Why do we humans have things like rites, rituals, prayers, and beliefs? Many might answer that they help us to find meaning and purpose in life, feel connected with something greater, or ward off fear of death. But spirituality also often helps with something else: health and well-being. From Siberian shamans who also function as healers to the growing modern interest in mind-body medicine, spirituality is deeply entwined with our quest for wholeness. Now, researchers are finding that spirituality can help patients cope with one of the most challenging diseases of all: cancer.
First things first: very few researchers claim that prayer or meditation can shrink tumors, inspire spontaneous remissions, or lead to miracle cures. Instead, the vast majority of the research into spirituality and cancer has focused on how spiritual faith and practice can help cancer patients to deal with their illness, including the often painful and disruptive treatment processes. What they’re finding is that cancer patients who utilize spirituality or mind-body medicine often report feeling happier, better-adjusted, and less plagued by the unpleasant side effects of chemotherapy than their peers.
For example, a recent paper in the journal Current Treatment Options in Oncology presented a meta-analysis of dozens of research reports that investigated the effects of mind-body therapies on cancer patients. The authors found that a wide variety of such therapies had a beneficial impact. These benefits ranged from increasing relaxation and helping patients sleep to alleviating chronic pain and reducing hot flashes.
Mindfulness meditation, a type of stress-reduction practice based loosely on Mahayana Buddhist spiritual techniques, is one of the therapies that have garnered the most attention from researchers and the public alike. In the Oncology paper, the authors found compelling evidence to suggest that mindfulness can have a variety of positive effects. Most particularly, cancer patients who practiced a specific type of mindfulness technique – mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), designed by meditation advocate and medical researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn – found it easier to adapt to new and changed circumstances in their lives and to see their illness as part of a meaningful process of living and dying. And the benefits went further than that – some patients also reported becoming less judgmental of themselves and others and appreciating life more.
Yoga, even more popular among the American public than mindfulness techniques, was also shown to generally increase quality of life, reduce stress, and boost mood among cancer patients. Patients who had been practicing yoga were, on average across studies, less likely to be depressed, suffer from anxiety, or have difficulty sleeping. One study also found that yoga practitioners suffered less from hot flashes, an unpleasant but common side effect of chemotherapy.
It’s important to point out that none of the studies mentioned in this paper replaced Western treatments like chemotherapy with untested mind-body therapies. Practically no doctors are on the record saying that cancer patients should give up chemotherapy and rely on yoga instead. In fact, oncologists are generally even less enthusiastic about alternative treatments than their peers in other medical specialties. Rather, the mind-body therapies in these papers were shown to reduce anxiety, boost general well-being, and decrease stress among patients – all of which are important for any type of patient.
Still, the beneficial effects of reducing stress can sometimes extend beyond simply helping patients get more sleep and relax more effectively. For example, when people become stressed, their bodies secrete a hormone known as cortisol, which in occasional doses helps people get ready to act quickly in dangerous or trying circumstances by increasing blood sugar and metabolizing fat and protein. But when cortisol levels are high all the time – as they often are in stressed-out medical patients who are going through difficult and painful treatments – they can harm bodily tissues and contribute to diseases like obesity. Obviously, a chronically stressed-out body probably isn’t going to be as good at fighting cancer as a relaxed one.
And some studies did, in fact, show some physical as well as psychological benefits for mind-body practice. In one study on MBSR, breast and prostate cancer patients showed boosted immune profiles after participating in mindfulness exercises. And in a parallel study on a type of yogic breathing technique, yoga practitioners were found to have higher levels of natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell that specifically targets cancer.
So mind-body and spiritual therapies aren’t always just for boosting mood and helping with anxiety; in some cases they can also augment the body’s ability to fight disease directly. Nevertheless, the great bulk of benefits shown in the literature on spirituality and cancer are related to the intangible aspects of dealing with illness, from finding greater meaning in the challenge of being sick to becoming more patient and forgiving with self and others. Spirituality, in these contexts, shows that wellness and health aren’t just about having a functioning mind and body – they’re about achieving a life that’s worth living, even in the depths of illness. And that’s a goal worth fighting for.
See here for the article by Gary Elkins, William Fisher, and Aimee Johnson (Baylor University) in Current Treatment Options in Oncology.