In cancer, consider your beliefs and spiritual faith

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

AUGUST 21, 2019

A cancer patient looks up at the stars under a moonlit sky.We are all mortal. When we are diagnosed with cancer, we hear the words with our minds and hearts. We are all different, and our responses are borne of our histories and our lives. Whether it comes as a whisper or a roar, it changes us in the instant. There will forever more be a line of demarcation, a before and an after.

Whatever we were taught as children and whatever our spiritual heritage, cancer motivates us to consider life and death in newly urgent ways. We think about how we want to live and what our lives have meant. We consider our priorities and treasure our relationships. The beliefs that help sustain us, especially in difficult times, are often summed up as faith.

When I speak with newly diagnosed or very ill cancer patients, I often hear their questions about faith. Some, in a time of existential crisis, long for something they have lost and wonder if it can be found again. Others find comfort in places of worship or long-held religious traditions. The language and the music of our childhoods are powerful. Most of us search for answers to life's biggest questions.

Over decades of working with cancer patients, I have consistently observed that people who have faith, whatever the faith may be, have a slightly easier time than those who don't. To be clear, this does not necessarily mean being active in an organized religious community. An atheist or an agnostic who has pondered meaning may be just as comfortable in her beliefs as a lifelong member of a church or temple.

If you are struggling, these ideas may help you find your footing.

  • Consider speaking with a member of the clergy or a religious leader. This person does not have to be a member of your past or current religious heritage. At BIDMC, there is a wonderful Spiritual Care team who all do interfaith work. You can reach out to any one of them at 617-667-3030.
  • If you are hoping to find a more formal religious connection, consider attending services at several churches or temples to find one that feels like the right fit. Some people do this in the company of a cancer buddy who is also searching.
  • Read. As long as there has been written language, wise people have written about faith, fear, and meaning.
  • Listen. Music is powerful and can help heal us.
  • Look. Spend time in a museum or a library and let art surround you.
  • Touch. Be close to the people whom you love.
  • Meditate. Try to be present in the moment. I am here.
  • Remember moments when someone has been fully present with you. Try to feel that peacefulness and safety.
  • Go outside at night. If you can, lie on your back or at least look up at the stars. How can we be afraid of the dark when we have so loved the night sky?
  • Be outside in beautiful places. Walk, if you can, in the woods or near the water or the hills. There is great solace in the natural world. The more we feel part of the rhythm and cycles of life, the more peaceful we will feel.
  • Remember the old saying: I said to the almond tree: "Sister, speak to me of God." And the almond tree blossomed.

Have you considered or worked on your beliefs since cancer? Share your story

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.