Spiritual Support When You Have Cancer

Aprobado por la Junta Editorial de Cancer.Net, 09/2022

Living with cancer can feel like living with uncertainty. Sometimes that uncertainty can lead you to think about questions in the context of your personal spirituality. You may have been a spiritual or religious person before you had cancer or it may be something you did not think about before.

Spiritual support can help you identify sources of strength and strategies for coping. Finding ways to cope with and process your experience is an important part of your overall cancer care. Many patients, and their loved ones, report that spiritual support and care helped them during cancer.

What is spiritual cancer care?

Having cancer can lead you to think about spiritual questions that don't have easy answers. You may wonder, "Why did I get cancer?" "What does my life really mean?" or "What happens after death?" Spiritual care, also called spiritual support, is a type of palliative and supportive care. This type of care helps relieve suffering, helps you understand your cancer and its care, and helps you plan for what feels like an uncertain future. This includes when you are navigating these types of difficult questions.

Spiritual support helps you cope with symptoms and side effects that involve your spirit, mind, and emotions, as well as your physical body. You can have palliative care, including spiritual support, at any time during treatment for any type or stage of cancer. This includes right after your diagnosis or during and after treatment.

Who provides spiritual care and support?

A chaplain or spiritual care advisor usually provides spiritual care and support. This person is a member of your health care team. Chaplains can help you identify sources of strength for coping. They also identify and advocate for what matters most to you in your cancer journey. Chaplains are also trained to talk about life, death, legacy planning, and finding purpose.

What can a chaplain or spiritual advisor help with?

A chaplain or spiritual care advisor can help you with:

  • Feeling overwhelmed

  • Wondering if the cancer is a punishment

  • Family problems

  • Feeling alone

  • Being angry at God or the universe

Your chaplain or spiritual care advisor can work with other members of your health care team. For example, they may connect you with a counselor or other mental health professional. Or they might work with your social worker.

Do I have to be religious to get spiritual support?

No. Chaplains work with people from every faith and background, including those who don't identify with any specific faith. You do not need to identify as religious to receive this type of care. Spiritual support can help no matter what your beliefs are.

In fact, chaplains are used to talking with people from many different faiths and backgrounds. Whether you believe in God or find support elsewhere, they can help. Their job is to advocate for you and help you find strength and coping strategies.

A large hospital or cancer center often has several chaplains or spiritual care advisors. They usually include people from different faiths. If you are not comfortable with the first person you talk to, ask your health care team about seeing someone else.

Can my social worker give spiritual support?

Yes, at times. Your chaplain might work closely with a social worker at the hospital or clinic. Social workers help with practical, social, and sometimes emotional needs. For example, they may help you find a ride to the clinic. Or they can talk with you about your anxiety and help you find a counselor or support group. A social worker can help ease the spiritual pain of feeling discouraged, alone, or uncertain.

Where else can I find spiritual support?

You can find spiritual support in your religious community if you have one. If you feel comfortable doing so, tell one of the leaders about your diagnosis. You can also ask what support is available from the community. Your pastor, rabbi, or other leader may visit you or organize community members to help you and your family.

Religious and spiritual communities often welcome new people, too. You may feel like attending a service, support group, or other program even if you have not done this before. You can ask a chaplain or spiritual care advisor where to find a welcoming community. Or you may find one on your own.

Who can get spiritual care and support?

Anyone who wants spiritual care and support can receive it. You can get this at any time. For example, you may have just learned you have cancer and are struggling with the news. You can ask your health care team about talking with a chaplain. Or you might be a long-term cancer survivor and worried that the cancer will come back. You can talk to a spiritual advisor about how to cope with your concerns.

Spiritual help for cancer caregivers and other loved ones

Your family members, including caregivers, may have spiritual questions too. This is common for people who have a loved one with cancer. They might:

  • Be afraid of losing you

  • Wonder if they somehow caused the cancer

  • Feel exhausted

  • Be frustrated with you, treatment, or the whole situation

  • Feel angry at the cancer, the health care team, or even you

Talking with a chaplain or spiritual advisor can help caregivers and family members understand what they are feeling. It can also help them find support and answers.

Questions to ask your health care team

  • I am interested in speaking to someone about how to cope with my cancer diagnosis. Who can I talk to?

  • What spiritual questions do people with my type of cancer ask you?

  • Do you have any advice for finding spiritual support?

  • I have a question that is more spiritual than medical. Do you mind if I ask your opinion?

  • I would like to talk with someone about the bigger issues of life. Can you suggest anyone?

  • I am considering what is most important in my life now. Who can I talk to about this?

  • I would like to talk with someone about what happens when we die. Who can I talk to?

  • I am interested in joining a religious community now, even though I've never been a religious person. Is this normal for someone with cancer, and can it help?

  • My religious community has some beliefs about cancer, life, and death that I do not share. I am struggling with this. Can you recommend a chaplain?

Related Resources

What is the Role of a Chaplain in Cancer Care?

The 4 Corners of Palliative Care: The Role of Spiritual Support

How to Recognize Cancer Distress – and Cope with It

More Information

National Cancer Network: Spirituality in Cancer Care

Stanford University: Cancer, Religion, and Spirituality