The science of spirituality: Fighting cancer from within
January 7, 2019
| by Dory Benford
Terry L. Irish, Rev., D. Min., B.C.C.
People being treated for cancer are used to being asked how they feel: Are you tired today? Nauseous? In pain? But Terry L. Irish, Rev., D. Min., B.C.C., puts a different spin on the question.
“I ask patients, ‘How is your spirit today?’” explained Irish, a recently retired chaplain in City of Hope’s Department of Supportive Care Medicine.
It might not be a question you’re used to answering — but it’s definitely one worth considering. Whether or not you practice an organized religion, you can benefit from getting in touch with your spiritual side.
Understanding Spirituality: Seeking Something Bigger
Spirituality means different things to different people. “Spirituality is very personal and covers a vast range of experiences,” Irish said. “Spirituality may include organized religion, but there is a distinction between spirituality and religion.”
If you have a religious faith tradition, you might find spirituality through your faith. Or you might nurture your spirit in other ways, such as through art, meditation or your connection with nature.
At its core, spirituality is about tapping into something in the universe that is bigger than any one individual. However you define spirituality in your own life, feeding your soul can help foster feelings of comfort and inner peace. Those feelings are especially valuable when you’re embarking on a cancer journey.
Spirituality and Health: A Different Kind of Cancer Support
Spirituality can help people cope with the fears and unknowns of cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, spirituality may help reduce negative feelings such as anxiety, depression, anger and regret. Meanwhile, it can also increase positive emotions like hope, optimism and life satisfaction.
Whether you are deeply religious, just starting to explore your spiritual side or somewhere in between, these steps can help you nurture your spirit within.
- Engage in your faith. If you practice a religious faith, you can tend your spirituality through religious services and conversations with other members of your faith. Whether or not you attend religious services, you might find comfort in regular prayer (or in asking other members of your faith to pray for you).
- Read for inspiration. Reading is a great way to add a dose of spirituality into your daily life. If you’re religious, reading texts from your faith is an obvious choice. But whether or not you practice an organized religion, you can soothe your soul with inspirational essays and poems and books about spirituality and philosophy. (Two of Irish’s favorites: "Jesus Calling" by Sarah Young and "Grief One Day at a Time" by Alan D. Wolfelt.)
- Talk to family and friends. A cancer diagnosis can bring up difficult feelings as you wrestle with your beliefs about the meaning of life and death. Talking about your beliefs with family and friends can help you better understand your own spiritual beliefs. At the same time, those conversations might help you connect with loved ones on a deeper, more intimate level.
- Explore meditation. Meditative practices such as mindfulness meditation and gentle yoga can help you tap into feelings of inner peace and awe associated with spirituality. If you’re new to mindfulness practice, you can download free meditation apps on your smartphone or find guided meditations on YouTube.
- Find the thing that fills you up. Think about what brings you peace, comfort and connection with the world beyond you. Your source of spirituality might come from gazing at the stars, attending religious services or making music. Find what works for you and do it as often as you can.
- Talk to a chaplain. If you’re being treated in the hospital as an inpatient or an outpatient, hospital chaplains are available to discuss matters of faith. That’s true no matter what religion you practice (or even if you have no current religious practice at all). “The faith tradition is not important. Chaplains are able to provide spiritual care with any patient, at any time,” Irish explained.
To talk to a chaplain or find spiritual support, contact City of Hope’s Spiritual Care Services here
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