Spiritual Counseling

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 frequently arises.

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 cancer.

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.


  1. Offer you help in dealing with feelings of guilt, anger, and despair or in exploring the question, "Why is this happening to me?"

  2. Help you find new or renewed meaning in life after a diagnosis.

  3. Offer practical help from your place of worship, including assistance with transportation or visitation services.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.


Serving Sizes: Fruits and Veggies
by OncoLink Editorial Team
August 12, 2013

Cancer Center Advertising: Doing More Harm Than Good?
by Rodney Warner, JD
July 21, 2016