Finding Meaning & Purpose

CURE, Spring 2010, Volume 9, Issue 1

A recent analysis looks at spiritual well-being in cancer patients.

A recent analysis of two studies conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Connecticut attempted to assess spiritual well-being in cancer patients and survivors on the basis of two dimensions: meaning/peace, which reflects one’s purpose in life, and faith, which was defined as a perceived comfort derived from a connection to something larger than one’s self and was correlated with existing measures of religiosity.

Annette Stanton, PhD, one of the authors of the analysis, which is scheduled for publication in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, says the findings were different for those who indicated they had meaning and peace compared with those who relied on faith. “We found that people who had a sense of meaning and purpose in life had a decrease in depressive symptoms and intrusive thoughts about cancer, as well as an increase in vitality over the next year. The cancer was less pressing. They had something else to go back to.”

Stanton, now an assistant professor at Indiana University, says the results did not indicate that faith was a bad thing, but that it contributes differently.

“People who defined themselves as high on the faith scale perceived more growth from their cancer experience,” Stanton says. “Many faiths believe that there is a growth through suffering. Those high on faith see it as a time to grow.”

Through serving others Stephanie Sugars has weathered numerous life-altering diagnoses, beginning at age 16 when she learned she had Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by gastrointestinal polyps and increased cancer risk. Sugars says living with the isolation of her disease required building inner strength, which she attributes to following Buddhist teachings about the existence of suffering as well as the practice of meditation.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991 at age 34, Sugars’ cancer recurred a year later. Since then she has been in and out of medical treatment. Sugars found her spiritual quest take shape during the Cancer Help Program, a week-long retreat for cancer patients at Commonweal, a nonprofit health and environmental research institute in Bolinas, California.

Sugars says the program, which she attended in both 1992 and 2009, helped her formulate her own personal spiritual journey, which is built around the question: What is it to be alive in this body in this world at this time?

“Commonweal taught me about wounded healers, and a decade with the Peutz-Jeghers group has given me the experience of transforming individual suffering and isolation into service to people and the world,” says Sugars, adding that the span of 17 years between retreats showed her how far she had come in her journey and how she was able to overcome the isolation of her cancer experience by forming an online community to help those with Peutz-Jeghers.

Sharing those deep heart questions with others in the same boat ends loneliness. It builds community and strengthens meaning for everyone.

She says practicing meditation, a foundation of Buddhism, has been an important tool for this work and for dealing with post-­traumatic stress disorder that resulted from the ongoing medical treatments.

“Meditation gives me a buffer, a way to not be in everything. You are in the world but not of it when you meditate,” Sugars says.

One of the goals of the Cancer Help Program is exploring the spiritual dimensions of cancer, says Michael Lerner, PhD, the president of Commonweal.

Lerner says the complexity of evaluating research on religion as opposed to spirituality comes from the overlapping circles of religion and spirituality. “You can be religious and spiritual, or you can be religious and not spiritual, or spiritual and not religious,” Lerner says, explaining that the retreat helps cancer patients find internal resources to move forward with their disease.

With a focus on living better and longer, Lerner says the retreat raises the sense of hope and meaning through such complementary practices as yoga, deep relaxation, meditation, sandtray, and both group and individual therapy sessions in a community of caring participants.

“Facing a life-threatening cancer raises questions of ultimate meaning,” Lerner says. “For some the frame is secular, for others religious or spiritual. The frame matters less than the opportunity to find a safe place to go inward and to see what is in your heart—what truly matters to you now. Sharing those deep heart questions with others in the same boat ends loneliness. It builds community and strengthens meaning for everyone, regardless of the frame we use. And finding meaning in the face of our greatest trials is at the heart of it all.”