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Cancer Health Center

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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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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.
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