Does spirituality and religion play any role in cancer outcomes? New research that analyzed a significant number of studies on the topic found that there does seem to be a connection—but the details remain fuzzy.
“Is there an overall relationship? Yes, there is; but what does that really mean?” says lead author John Salsman, Ph.D. of Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem. While leading the research, Salsman was at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “One of the limitations is that it’s not a causal link because the overwhelming majority of the studies are cross-sectional in nature.”
In other words, is spirituality impacting health? Or is health impacting spirituality? It’s also possible that something else that’s related to both could be going on.
The research team found that cancer patients who identified as religious or spiritual experienced better physical health when compared to others. This translated to fewer overall cancer symptoms. These physical benefits were most pronounced among people who felt a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. Interestingly, there seemed to be no apparent link between improved physical outcomes and religious behaviors like church attendance, prayer and meditation.
When it came to mental health, Salsman says that spiritual well-being was also associated with decreased anxiety, depression and stress. On the flipside, spiritual disconnectedness was linked to poorer emotional well-being.
The research also looked at social health; more specifically, the ways in which people with cancer were able to keep up relationships and social roles. Again, folks with stronger spirituality experienced better social health. Although, Salsman notes that the link was modest.
“One piece that was surprising to us is that we thought we would see differences by demographic characteristics of the patients because research in this area shows older people, women, and racial and ethnic minorities tend to be more religious than younger people, men and whites/Caucasians,” Salsman adds. “We actually didn’t see that in this study. The effects we found were the same across all types of people, and all types of cancer, and all stages of cancer, and across the continuum of care.”