Every day we read or hear media stories on research about what we should eat or drink and how much exercise we should take to stay healthy. Often this advice is openly or subtly tapping into our fear of contracting some disease deemed deadly, such as cancer. One area of research concerning this much dreaded illness has until now remained quietly ignored – spirituality and its effect on health, including that of cancer patients.
A comprehensive analysis of studies on the link between health and religious or spiritual beliefs was published this month in the Journal of Cancer. This huge analysis of over 44,000 patients strongly indicates that having a religious or faith practice has a tangible health impact on cancer patients. They had better physical health, experienced fewer symptoms of cancer, recovered faster from treatments and enjoyed better social supports and overall health outcomes.
Dr. Brian Goldman, the host of White Coat, Black Art on CBC, both wrote and spoke recently about these studies. He agrees with the researchers that there are some factors involved that can partially explain the findings, such as healthy living habits, but indicates that those factors do not explain the whole story. He writes:
“You can’t chalk up all of the benefits of religious or spiritual devotion to healthy habits.”
So, what is it about religious or spiritual devotion that has the power to produce physical results? One of the findings in the research was that patients who saw God in loving terms experienced less fear and anxiety, depression or distress regarding their diagnosis.
Historically, people of faith have relied upon a sense of a loving God in fearful times, and experienced comfort and even restoration of health. Today, these things are being studied and documented in bio-medical settings. Both within and outside of those settings, many people are exploring and discovering the role that faith and religious and spiritual practices can play in helping people deal with both their fear of, and the disease itself. Some of those are people who had no spiritual faith initially. One young woman who discovered such a faith wrote about how she found a surprising freedom from fear – and then from the illness itself – through prayer after she received a frightening diagnosis of cancer.
Karen Walsh was a health professional from Florida, working in the field of cytotechnology, the study of cellular composition and the detection of cancer. After a routine health check before her wedding, she received a positive test for cancer. This was a crushing blow. Instead of looking forwards to a bright, healthy future with the man she loved, she became overwhelmed with the fear of illness and dying.
At the time of her diagnosis, Walsh was not at all interested in religion or spirituality. Her faith was fully invested in biomedicine, as that was her training and background.
Shortly after her wedding, Walsh began to read stories in a Christian Science magazine. They were written by people who had found a way to pray that removed fear and fostered a trust in healing that results from a relationship with a divine, loving God. One day, she decided to try this method of praying when she badly burned her finger. The healing result was startling, Yet it bolstered her newfound sense of a loving God that was her health and her life. Continuing to pray with these ideas, Walsh found freedom from the fear of cancer and dying. Shortly thereafter, she underwent new tests and was given a clean – cancer free – bill of health. Walsh wrote about her experience in the same publication that had initially helped her.
The divine Love that Walsh discovered, felt very powerful and present for her, and remains with her today. It enabled her to find permanent freedom from the fear of disease and death.
So does that mean that we should all go out and find a religion – rather like going and buying the latest recommended cancer-fighting foods? Not necessarily. But paying heed to what we’re learning from these studies as well as to the experiences of individuals like Walsh, opens pathways to previously ignored solutions to the fear of disease, including cancer.
This article was published in the Vancouver Sun HERE