Spirituality Lessens Despair Over Dying

Meaning in Life Brings Peace to Those Dying of Cancer

From the WebMD Archives

May 8, 2003 -- For people dying of cancer, a strong spiritual sense seems to bring less despair.

A new study addressing this issue appears in this week's issue of The Lancet.

"The importance of spirituality in coping with a terminal illness is becoming increasingly recognized," writes lead researcher Barry Rosenfeld, PhD, a psychologist with New York's Fordham University.

When told they are dying of cancer, people are forced to grapple with difficult issues, such as the meaning and purpose of life and whether a greater power exists, he explains. Spirituality, whether through organized religion or not, helps people understand their lives in view of their ultimate meaning and value, he writes.

In their study, Rosenfeld and colleagues focused on 160 cancer patients in a New York hospice -- looking at symptoms of depression, whether they desired a faster death, and if they had thoughts of suicide.

Researchers also weighed the patients' spiritual well-being -- meaning, peace, and faith. Such feelings indicate inner harmony and peace with oneself, as well as comfort and strength that come from religious beliefs, Rosenfeld explains.

They found that spiritual well-being can lessen feelings of hopelessness and the desire to hasten death.

"Although much research has focused on depression, spiritual well-being might have a more powerful effect," he says. In fact, "meaning" may play a greater role in well-being than does "faith" for people dying of cancer, his study suggests.

"The ability to find or sustain meaning in one's life [when dying of cancer] might help to deter end-of-life despair to a greater extent than spiritual well-being rooted in one's religious faith," he writes.

His findings provide important direction for hospices and other programs for patients dying of cancer, Rosenfeld writes.

SOURCE: The Lancet, May 10, 2003.