When someone hears the words “you have cancer,” they come face-to-face with their mortality. As cancer is generally viewed as a life-threatening illness, this diagnosis often brings up questions about spirituality, religion, meaning, and purpose. Though often ignored by oncology professionals — spiritual care ranks as one of the highest unmet needs of cancer care1 — acknowledging and addressing the spiritual needs of patients with cancer can drastically improve their cancer experience.

Spirituality Is a Key Part of Patient Care

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) identifies spirituality as an essential aspect of health, along with the physical, emotional, and social domains,2 and the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) guidelines include spiritual care as a critical element of cancer care.3 With 50% of cancer patients noting that their diagnosis has impacted their spiritual and religious beliefs, there is a professional responsibility to acknowledge spiritual well-being.4 Several studies show that the majority of patients with cancer are open to discussing spiritual beliefs and practices as part of treatment, even those who do not attend religious services or express adherence to any specific religious belief. In fact, many people seek out spiritual support as they try to find meaning in their diagnosis.4

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Spirituality Improves Patient Outcomes

 Overwhelmingly, there is a positive relationship between spiritual/religious beliefs and practices and better health outcomes — physically, mentally, and emotionally.5

  • Patients have a better prognosis, more favorable outcomes, and longer survival.
  • They feel a greater sense of control and are better able to cope with their disease.
  • Patients are more hopeful, optimistic, and feel a greater sense of peace.
  • They experience better quality of life and greater satisfaction with care.
  • They manage the challenges of disease better.
  • Spirituality/religion instills people with a significant degree of hope and optimism.

These positive outcomes occur along every stage of the cancer journey, from diagnosis to treatment to survival and end-of-life.

Although spiritual care is often left to palliative care specialists, there is a strong case for all healthcare professionals to address spiritual needs. Many overlook this aspect of care due to personal beliefs, discomfort with the topic, lack of knowledge, or misunderstanding of what spiritual care means. Self-reflection can go far in breaking down these barriers to incorporating the spiritual dimension into patient care. Small changes to how professionals address spiritual well-being can result in big gains for the patient-provider relationship.