Our beliefs about life, its meaning, and value can be shaken up by a
cancer diagnosis. The most immediate question is "Why is this
happening to me?" This question occurs to most people, whether or not
they consider themselves to be religious. For people who believe in
God, the question can become "Why is God doing this to me?" or "Is God
punishing me?" Cancer as a punishment for some past sin is an old,
stubborn idea. The other idea that some people have is that God
doesn't give us anything we can't handle. Somehow, then if we develop
problems in coping, we feel as if we're disappointing God or failing
in some way. People may also become disillusioned or even get angry
at God when they develop cancer. They may find it hard to pray or to
know what to pray for.
Even for those who do not consider themselves religious, questions of
a spiritual nature or about the meaning of life can be troublesome.
Because people attach meaning to events, the question of our life's
value and how life will be different after a cancer diagnosis
The answers to these questions are not always easy to find. For some
people, cancer leads to a spiritual crisis. This may be the first time
people are faced with disturbing questions. Pastoral counselors can
often be helpful. This is not to say that the clergy have all of the
answers to life's most difficult problems. However, they are willing
to help you search for answers.
Sometimes people think the clergy should be called only when someone
is close to death. But the clergy may be helpful at any time during
the illness. People differ in what they need from the clergy or
pastoral counselors. For some, a familiar ritual like reciting a
prayer together is helpful. Others may want to discuss their
experience and questions in more depth, and a pastoral counselor may
serve as a sounding board to figure out how life can acquire new
meaning after a cancer diagnosis. If you have spiritual concerns,
talking with the clergy might be helpful.
Some people use prayer to help cope with their cancer. There is no
scientific evidence that prayer alone will cure cancer. On the other
hand, prayer is based on faith, not on science. The important point
is that prayer and scientifically tested treatments should not
interfere with one another. Receiving medical treatment should not
prevent people from praying, and praying should not prevent people
from receiving the best, scientifically tested treatment for their
If prayer has helped you deal with other troubles, it will probably
also be comforting now. At the very least, prayer may help you feel
less alone. If prayer is useful to you, combine it with the best
scientifically tested treatment for your cancer.
HOW SPIRITUAL COUNSELING SERVICES CAN HELP
- Offer you help in dealing with feelings of guilt, anger, and
despair or in exploring the question, "Why is this happening to me?"
- Help you find new or renewed meaning in life after a diagnosis.
- Offer practical help from your place of worship, including
assistance with transportation or visitation services.
HOW DO YOU FIND THESE SERVICES?
- Hospitals often employ pastoral counselors. Ask your doctor,
nurse, or social worker. If you belong to a church, synagogue or other
place of worship, consider talking with your clergy.
- Spiritual counseling is available from hospitals, hospice
programs, places of worship, or through lay counselors affiliated with
these institutions. Sometimes counseling agencies employ a
professional pastoral counselor. If you want to see a spiritual
counselor, keep asking until you find someone who will meet your
needs. Your hospital social worker may also help you find someone.
- Spiritual counseling services are usually free, with the exception
of a pastoral counselor employed by a counseling agency. Again, those
fees are often adjusted to a family's income.
- Not all clergy are experienced in helping people solve
cancer-related problems. The same is true of counselors in general,
since they tend to specialize in certain types of problems. If the
clergy in your local place of worship are not experienced in this
field, ask your hospital social worker to refer you to a pastoral
counselor who is.
Frequently Asked Questions
National Cancer Institute