Tips in a Minute: Addressing Spiritual Concerns Across the Cancer Continuum

OncoLink Team
Last Modified: May 28, 2014

OncoLink Tip in a Minute

What is spirituality?

  • The ways individuals seek and express meaning and purpose.
  • How individuals experience connectedness to a moment, to their being, to their relationships, to the world around them, to the sacred and to god/higher power.
  • Highly individual.
  • Expressed in many ways including:
    • Attending organized religious/spiritual services or activities
    • Prayer
    • Meditation
    • Creative expression (i.e. music, art)

Serious illness can change the way we answer "the big questions."

  • Who am I?
  • What is life all about?
  • Do I have a purpose?
  • Why am I here?
  • Why is this happening to me?
  • Why is there suffering?

Asking questions about the meaning and purpose of life is a universal experience – and it is okay!

  • Questioning happens regardless of religious or spiritual beliefs and practices.
  • Some individuals put these questions into a religious or spiritual context.

What are some common spiritual concerns when facing a cancer diagnosis/treatment?

  • Mortality
    • Am I going to die?
  • Identity
    • Who am I?
    • What is important to me?
    • What will I become?
    • What does life mean to me?
  • Loss, grief and mourning:
    • Loss is common throughout the cancer experience:
      • Loss of ability to work
      • Loss of hair
      • Loss of appetite
      • Loss of energy
      • Loss of fertility
      • Loss of life
    • Spirituality and religion can help us grieve for that which is lost.
    • Spirituality and religion can also help us discover what can be gained.
  • Maintaining Hope
    • Maintaining optimism
    • Miracles
    • Re-framing hope: If cure or control is not possible, what is the next best thing to hope for?

What are some symptoms of spiritual distress?

  • Concern with the meaning of life and death and/or belief system.
  • Anger towards God/the Ultimate (as defined by the individual).
  • Questioning the meaning of suffering.
  • Verbalizing inner conflicts about beliefs.
  • Verbalizing concern about relationship with God/ the 'Ultimate' (as defined by the individual).
  • Questioning the meaning of one's own existence.
  • Changing usual religious or spiritual practices.
  • Displacement of anger onto religious/spiritual support persons, caregivers, and family members.
  • Increased anger, crying, hostility, withdrawal and apathy.
  • Viewing illness as a punishment.

What are the benefits of addressing spiritual concerns and incorporating spiritual practices into my cancer care plan?

  • Can assist with adjustment to your cancer diagnosis and its treatment.
  • Increases quality of life.
  • Provides a sense of strength and belonging.
  • Highlights the potential for growth.
  • Provides a positive outlet for hope.
  • Helps to address "unfinished business" and repair fractured relationships.
  • Provides an opportunity for life review.
  • Offers a sense of inner peace.

Who can help me address spiritual or religious distress in my cancer experience?

  • A religious leader from a church, mosque, synagogue or other institution.
  • A spiritual guide.
  • A chaplain at your treatment center.
  • Other healthcare team members including your doctor, nurses and social worker.
  • Your family and friends.


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I wish u knew...the role of the chaplain in cancer care
by Timothy J. Hampshire
December 10, 2012

From the National Cancer Institute