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Spiritual Beliefs Can Positively Affect Cancer Care

cancer care, cancer treatment, ovarian cancer, spirituality, spiritual wellness

Spirituality means something different to everyone, but in cancer care, being spiritual can have a powerful positive effect on your outcome. Researchers with the Washington University School of Medicine have found that ovarian cancer patients had less stress and depression plus lower levels of certain factors related to tumor growth.

Being spiritual is different from being religious. Some common themes associated with spirituality include:

  • The idea of a process or journey of self-discovery and of learning not only who you are, but who you want to be.
  • The challenge of reaching beyond your current limits. This can include keeping an open mind, questioning current beliefs, or trying to better understand others' beliefs.
  • A connectedness to yourself and to others. Spirituality is personal, but it is also rooted in being connected with others and with the world around you. This connection can facilitate you finding "your place in the world."
  • Meaning, purpose, and direction. Spirituality, while it doesn't necessarily solve or reach conclusions, often embraces the concept of searching and moving forward in the direction of meaning, purpose, and direction for your life.
  • A higher power, whether rooted in a religion, nature, or some kind of unknown essence.

"Spirituality is an important psychosocial resource that positively influences quality of life," notes Premal Thaker MD.

To analyze the effects of spirituality on preoperative patients with ovarian cancer, Dr. Thaker and her team of researchers performed a prospective cohort study of 165 women with confirmed epithelial ovarian cancer. Epithelial carcinoma of the ovary is one of the most common gynecologic malignancies and the fifth most frequent cause of cancer death in women.

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Patients were surveyed for stress, depression, and self-reported spirituality through the Perceived Stress Scale, Beck Depression Inventory, and FACT-Spirituality survey, respectively. Participants also had blood drawn on the morning of surgery, which was used to obtain data on concentrations of patients' IL-6, IL-8, and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF).

IL-6, or Interleukin 6, is a marker of inflammation. It also plays a role in tumor growth. Dr. Thaker notes that earlier studies have linked depression with worse IL-6 outcomes and high social support with better IL-6 outcomes. This study found that those women who identified with being spiritual had lower levels of IL-6.

There were no significant associations between spirituality and VEGF or IL-8 concentrations. IL-8 is a chemokine produced by epithelial cells and an important immune system mediator. VEGF is a signal protein that stimulates angiogeneisis, which stimulates tumor growth.

A patient's spiritual beliefs and feelings are important for patients at the time of diagnosis and at the end of life by offering comfort, hope, improved quality of life, and meaning, explains Dr. Thaker. Some ideas for evoking a spiritual experience include the following, as offered by the Ohio State University Student Wellness Center:

  • Keep a journal - Writing important moments, events, or thoughts down in a journal helps some people reflect on their personal life. Reading back over past entries helps you see how certain events, people, and things have affected your life.
  • Gratitude – create an ongoing list of things that make you happy or things that you are thankful for. Recent research finds that those who keep a gratitude journal are more likely to experience fewer physical symptoms, are more optimistic about the future, and feel better in general than those who write about negative or neutral life events.
  • Maintain a strong social network – Identify those who are most important to you and stay in touch. Talk to friends and family about your beliefs, hopes – and even your fears. Also, you may wish to find a spiritual counselor to help you through your feelings and concerns during this time.
  • Yoga - Yoga can create a peace within you and set up your mind for stimulation.
  • Pray - If you do subscribe to the belief in a higher power, prayer can help you feel connected and at-peace. If you do not pray, try meditation or a relaxation technique to focus your thoughts and find peace of mind.
  • Read inspirational stories or essays.
  • Community Service – When you are well enough after cancer treatment, volunteering for a community service project can broaden your understanding of how you fit in with the world, as well as see how others' circumstances differ from your own.

Source reference:
Thaker PH, et al. "Spirituality, depression, and interleukin-6 in ovarian cancer patients" SGO 2013; Abstract 14.

Additional Resources:
National Cancer Institute
Ohio State University
University of Maryland Medical Center