Spirituality May Improve Cancer Patients' Health: Study

But spiritual "distress" tends to have the opposite effect.
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Religious and spiritual belief is linked to a positive effect on cancer patients' physical, mental and social well-being, according to a study published in health journal Cancer.

A meta-analysis of published studies, which included data on more than 44,000 patients, showed patients with high levels of self-reported spiritual belief said they had fewer or less-crippling symptoms of cancer and treatment. Patients' spiritual well-being was associated with less anxiety and depression. A belief in a benign and personal God typically correlated with better social health.

The opposite also held true. Researcher John Salsman, an associate professor of social sciences and health policy at Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina, said high religious or spiritual "distress" was associated "with poorer perceptions of health."

"Medical care providers need to be attuned to the dark side of religion in patients with cancer," Salsman said. That might include "struggling on an existential level" or feeling a "disconnectedness with God." Doctors are better able to provide patients with supportive care resources when they assess them early for spiritual distress, he added.

The study raises a crucial unanswered question, Salsman said: To what extent should medical providers facilitate "spiritual interventions" in cancer treatment?

But the study didn't show a direct causality between spirituality and physical, emotional or social well-being in cancer patients, which could determine whether medical providers should facilitate "spiritual interventions" in conjunction with treatment, Salsman said. Researchers also should note that outside factors that may have affected the results.

For instance, people with higher self-reported spirituality are typically "more likely to minimize their symptom reports," Salsman said, and have been shown to report their health higher on self-assessments than those with lower levels or no spiritual practice.

Further research is necessary to isolate these variables and refine the understanding of spirituality and health, Salsman said. But medical providers should be attuned to the ways religion affects patients, he added.

Religious belief is likely to affect a patient's views on prolonging care, invasive treatments when recovery is unlikely, and determining a good death.

"If a medical team allows space for these discussions to happen," Salsman said, "it provides a better opportunity for patient-centered care."

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