Religious and Spiritual Values are important to most people; many Africans are of the Christian Faith and their religious beliefs affect how they live their lives. Many patients with cancer and parents of Children with Cancer rely on spiritual or religious beliefs and practices to help them cope with their disease; this is called spiritual coping. Many caregivers also rely on spiritual coping.

People have diverse ideas however about life after death, belief in miracles, and other religious beliefs, all of which may be based on ethnic background, age, gender, and education.

This also means that individuals may have different spiritual needs depending on their individual cultural and religious traditions. Spiritual well-being may affect how much anxiety some seriously ill patients feel about death; for others it may affect what they decide about end-of-life treatments.

It may be important to some patients or caregivers to be able to speak to their doctors about spiritual concerns but they may feel unsure as to how to broach the subject with them.

According to some studies, doctors’ support of spiritual well-being in very ill patients helps improve their quality of life, and this is making health care providers treating patients coping with cancer look at new ways to help them with their religious and spiritual concerns.

Research has shown that patients, caregivers, and parents of Children with advanced Cancer who receive spiritual support from the medical team may be more likely to choose hospice care and less aggressive treatment at the end of life.

Spirituality vs Religion

The terms Spirituality and Religion are often used in place of each other, but for many people they have different meanings:

Religion may be defined as a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices and ritual observance of faith, usually within an organised group.

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Spirituality, on the other hand, may be defined as an  individual’s sense of peace, purpose, and sense of connection to something bigger than themselves, and it typically involves a search for meaning in life. As such, it is a universal human experience – something that touches us all.

Spirituality may be found and expressed through an organised religion or in other ways, and individuals may think of themselves as spiritual or religious or both.

Spiritual Distress

According to the North American Nursing Diagnosis Association (NANDA), Spiritual Distress is a disturbance in a person’s belief system.

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As an approved nursing diagnosis, Spiritual Distress is defined as “a disruption in the life principle that pervades a person’s entire being and that integrates and transcends one’s biological and psychological nature.”

Serious illnesses like childhood cancer may cause patients, caregivers or family of individuals with cancer to have doubts about their beliefs or religious values and cause spiritual distress.

Some studies show that patients with cancer, caregivers and parents of Children with Cancer may feel that they are being punished by God, or may experience a loss of faith after diagnosis. Others may have mild feelings of spiritual distress when coping with cancer.

Spirituality and Quality of Life

It is not really clear just how Spirituality and Religion are related to health, but various studies have shown that Spiritual or Religious beliefs and practices definitely create a positive mental attitude that may help a patient feel better as well as improve the well-being of family caregivers.

Spiritual and religious well-being may help improve health and quality of life in the following ways:

  • Decrease anxiety, depression, anger, and discomfort.
  • Decrease the sense of isolation (feeling alone) and the risk of suicide.
  • Decrease alcohol and drug abuse.
  • Lower blood pressure and the risk of heart disease.
  • Help the patient adjust to the effects of cancer and its treatment.
  • Increase the ability to enjoy life during cancer treatment.
  • Give a feeling of personal growth as a result of living with cancer.
  • Increase positive feelings, including:
    • Hope and optimism
    • Freedom from regret
    • Satisfaction with life
    • A sense of inner peace

Spiritual and religious well-being may also help a patient live longer.

Published on Nov 6, 2014
Melanie Rogers is a Senior Lecturer and Advanced Nurse Practitioner at the University of Huddersfield and is one of the leaders of the special interest group into spirituality in health care. Spirituality goes beyond religion and in simple terms can give a patient ‘hope, meaning and purpose’, which can help in their recovery from illness. As Melanie explains, though a valuable part of the care a patient needs to receive, it is an area that makes many health professionals uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. Huddersfield is currently introducing spirituality into its curricula for its health students and here Melanie comments on the issues, including compassion fatigue, and how she approaches it with both her patients and her students.

Meeting Spiritual and Religious Needs

Religion and Spirituality are very personal issues, and doctors and other members of the oncology medical team should respect these religious and spiritual beliefs and concerns.

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Patients with cancer, caregivers and parents of Children with Cancer who rely on spirituality to cope with the disease should be able to count on the healthcare team to give them support.

This may include giving them information about people or groups that can help with spiritual or religious needs; most hospitals have chaplains, but not all outpatient settings do.

The medical team should offer information regarding where spiritual or religious support can be accessed, but should not take part in the religious practices or discuss specific religious beliefs.

By the same token, the wishes of those who do not want to discuss spirituality or religion during cancer care should be respected.

The health care team can help with an individual’s spiritual needs when setting goals and planning treatment.

The health care team could help with a patient’s spiritual needs in the following ways:

Suggest goals and options for care that honour the patient’s spiritual and/or religious views:

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  • Support the patient’s use of spiritual coping during the illness.
  • Encourage the patient to speak with his/her religious or spiritual leader.
  • Refer the patient to a hospital chaplain or support group that can help with spiritual issues during illness.
  • Refer the patient to other therapies that have been shown to increase spiritual well-being. These include mindfulness relaxation, such as yoga or meditation, or creative arts programs, such as art therapy, writing, drawing, or music therapy.

Apart from Religious and Spiritual Beliefs, Cultural Beliefs also have a profound influence on cancer patients, their families and their caregivers, and this we will discuss soon in a post entitled Cultural Traditions & Cancer Care.

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