Cancer and its treatment are notoriously difficult, with symptoms and side effects that challenge patients physically and emotionally. Treatments like chemotherapy and radiation attack the cancer, but cannot relieve its secondary conditions like insomnia, pain and anxiety — in fact, while treatments are vital, they can often make these secondary conditions worse.
Increasingly, scientific evidence shows that non-medical tactics such as spiritual practices and mindfulness meditation can help manage negative symptoms and side effects. Over the last 20 years, oncologists have begun to incorporate such techniques into complete cancer treatment programs.
“Long before modern medicine, people were using meditation and prayer,” says Dr. Shane Sinclair. He’s an associate professor and cancer care research professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Calgary, and he studies the art and science of compassion and spirituality and its effect on people with serious illnesses. He says spiritual practices can help patients manage distress and retain a sense of meaning before, during and after cancer treatment.
In fact, many cancer patients turn to prayer and meditation instinctively, whether or not they belong to an organized religion, and whether or not these practices are part of their official treatment program. Sinclair says a study showed 52 per cent of cancer patients at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre pray at least once a week — a statistic that surprised even him. “A lot of patients use these practices more than physicians may know,” Sinclair says. “Patients want it, and patients use it.”
A 2015 study that investigated the effect of religion and spirituality on physical health in cancer patients in the U.S. concluded that these practices are associated with better patient-reported physical health. Moreover, they should be considered an important component of comprehensive cancer care — not because they cure the illness, but because they improve quality of life. Prayer and meditation can have physical and cognitive effects, reducing feelings of anxiety and distress while increasing resilience. Spiritual practices can give patients hope while connecting them to supportive communities, both of which can enhance a patient’s focus on self-care. “They can be thought of as the longest-standing healing practices,” Sinclair says. “They can bring an incredible amount of comfort to people.”
Despite their history, spiritual and meditative practices have not always been part of modern oncology. “The biomedical model has been king for decades,” Sinclair says. However, he believes the mounting scientific evidence for meditation and prayer is opening minds. Word of mouth has also been effective: the more oncologists and practitioners see the positive results of such practices, the more open they become to incorporating them. In fact, Sinclair says many practitioners engage in spiritual practices to manage their own stress.