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


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.

Spirituality and spiritual well-being are more challenging to define. Some definitions limit spirituality to mean profound mystical experiences; however, in considerations of effects on health and psychological well-being, the more helpful definitions focus on accessible feelings, such as a sense of inner peace, existential meaning, and purpose in life, or awe when walking in nature. For the purposes of this discussion, it is assumed that there is a continuum of meaningful spiritual experiences, from the common and accessible to the extraordinary and transformative. Both type and intensity of experience may vary. Other aspects of spirituality that have been identified by those working with medical patients include a sense of meaning and peace, a sense of faith, and a sense of connectedness to others or to God. Low levels of these experiences may be associated with poorer coping (refer to the Relation of Religion and Spirituality to Adjustment, Quality of Life, and Health Indices section).[3]

The definition of acute spiritual distress must be considered separately. Spiritual distress may result from the belief that cancer reflects punishment by God or may accompany a preoccupation with the question "Why me?" A cancer patient may also suffer a loss of faith.[8] Although many individuals may have such thoughts at some time following diagnosis, only a few individuals become obsessed with these thoughts or score high on a general measure of religious and spiritual distress (such as the Negative subscale of the Religious Coping Scale [the RCOPE-Negative]).[8] High levels of spiritual distress may contribute to poorer health and psychosocial outcomes.[9,10] The tools for measuring these dimensions are described in the Screening and Assessment of Spiritual Concerns section.


  1. Halstead MT, Mickley JR: Attempting to fathom the unfathomable: descriptive views of spirituality. Semin Oncol Nurs 13 (4): 225-30, 1997.
  2. Zinnbauer BJ, Pargament KL: Spiritual conversion: a study of religious change among college students. J Sci Study Relig 37 (1): 161-80, 1998.
  3. Breitbart W, Gibson C, Poppito SR, et al.: Psychotherapeutic interventions at the end of life: a focus on meaning and spirituality. Can J Psychiatry 49 (6): 366-72, 2004.
  4. Task force report: spirituality, cultural issues, and end of life care. In: Association of American Medical Colleges: Report III. Contemporary Issues in Medicine: Communication in Medicine. Washington, DC: Association of American Medical Colleges, 1999, pp 24-9.
  5. Ben-Arye E, Bar-Sela G, Frenkel M, et al.: Is a biopsychosocial-spiritual approach relevant to cancer treatment? A study of patients and oncology staff members on issues of complementary medicine and spirituality. Support Care Cancer 14 (2): 147-52, 2006.
  6. Astrow AB, Wexler A, Texeira K, et al.: Is failure to meet spiritual needs associated with cancer patients' perceptions of quality of care and their satisfaction with care? J Clin Oncol 25 (36): 5753-7, 2007.
  7. Riley BB, Perna R, Tate DG, et al.: Types of spiritual well-being among persons with chronic illness: their relation to various forms of quality of life. Arch Phys Med Rehabil 79 (3): 258-64, 1998.
  8. Pargament KI: The Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, Practice. New York, NY: Guilford Press, 1997.
  9. Pargament KI, Koenig HG, Tarakeshwar N, et al.: Religious struggle as a predictor of mortality among medically ill elderly patients: a 2-year longitudinal study. Arch Intern Med 161 (15): 1881-5, 2001 Aug 13-27.
  10. Hills J, Paice JA, Cameron JR, et al.: Spirituality and distress in palliative care consultation. J Palliat Med 8 (4): 782-8, 2005.

This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http:// cancer .gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.

WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: May 28, 2015
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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