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Spirituality in Cancer Care (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Definitions

Specific religious beliefs and practices should be distinguished from the idea of a universal capacity for spiritual and religious experiences. Although this distinction may not be salient or important on a personal basis, it is important conceptually for understanding various aspects of evaluation and the role of different beliefs, practices, and experiences in coping with cancer.

The most useful general distinction to make in this context is between religion and spirituality. There is no general agreement on definitions of either term, but there is general agreement on the usefulness of this distinction. A number of reviews address matters of definition.[1,2,3] Religion can be viewed as a specific set of beliefs and practices associated with a recognized religion or denomination. Spirituality is generally recognized as encompassing experiential aspects, whether related to engaging in religious practices or to acknowledging a general sense of peace and connectedness. The concept of spirituality is found in all cultures and is often considered to encompass a search for ultimate meaning through religion or other paths.[4] Within health care, concerns about spiritual or religious well-being have sometimes been viewed as an aspect of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), but this perception may be more characteristic of providers than of patients. In one study,[5] virtually no patients but about 20% of providers said that CAM services were sought to assist with spiritual or religious issues. Religion is highly culturally determined; spirituality is considered a universal human capacity, usually—but not necessarily—associated with and expressed in religious practice. Most individuals consider themselves both spiritual and religious; some may consider themselves religious but not spiritual. Others, including some atheists (people who do not believe in the existence of God) or agnostics (people who believe that God cannot be shown to exist), may consider themselves spiritual but not religious. In a sample of 369 representative cancer outpatients in New York City (33% minority), while only 6% identified themselves as agnostic or atheist, only 29% attended religious services weekly; 66% represented themselves as spiritual but not religious.[6]

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About This PDQ Summary

Purpose of This Summary This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about endometrial cancer prevention. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions. Reviewers and Updates This summary is reviewed regularly and updated as necessary by the PDQ Screening and Prevention...

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One effort to characterize individuals by types of spiritual and religious experience [7] identified the following three groups, using cluster analytic techniques:

  1. Religious individuals who highly value religious faith, spiritual well-being, and the meaning of life.
  2. Existential individuals who highly value spiritual well-being but not religious faith.
  3. Nonspiritual individuals who have little value for religiousness, spirituality, or a sense of the meaning of life.

Individuals in the third group were far more distressed about their illness and were experiencing worse adjustment. There is as yet no consensus on the number or types of underlying dimensions of spirituality or religious engagement.

From the prospective of both the research and clinical literature on the relationships between religion, spirituality, and health, it is important to consider how these concepts are defined and used by investigators and authors. Much of the epidemiological literature that has indicated a relationship between religion and health has been based on definitions of religious involvement such as membership in a religious group or frequency of church attendance. Somewhat more complex is assessing specific beliefs or religious practices such as belief in God, frequency of prayer, or reading religious material. Individuals may engage in such practices or believe in God without necessarily attending church services. Terminology also carries certain connotations; the term religiosity, for example, has a history of implying fervor and perhaps undue investment in particular religious practices or beliefs. Religiousness may be a more neutral way to refer to the dimension of religious practice.


WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: February 25, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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