09/14/2011 08:33 am ET Updated Nov 14, 2011

The Surprising Research Link Between Spirituality and Breast Cancer

Does spirituality make a difference in how a patient adjusts to breast cancer? According to recent studies, the answer is yes. It does depend, however, on whether spirituality/religiosity was already part of a patient's life prior to diagnosis.

And while we may be pretty clear about what religiosity is, what exactly is spirituality? Can you be spiritual without being religious?

Two studies by Yanez et al. (2009) examined the relationship between spiritual wellbeing and psychological adjustment. In the first study, two components of spirtual wellbeing, meaning/peace and faith, were examined in 418 patients with breast cancer. The study found that the following factors predicted a decline in depressive symptoms and an increase in vitality across 12 months:

  • A higher meaning/peace score at the beginning of the study.
  • An increase in meaning/peace over six months.

In the second study, meaning/peace and faith were examined in 165 cancer survivors. It was found that an increase in meaning/peace was related to:

  • Improved mental health
  • Lower cancer-related distress

In a study by Wildes et al. (2009), a significant positive correlation was found between religiosity/spirituality and quality of life in Latina breast cancer survivors. Quality of life factors included social wellbeing, functional wellbeing and a patient's relationship with her doctor. High religiosity/spirituality was also a predictor for better functional wellbeing and satisfaction with the doctor-patient relationship.

Already having spiritual/religious beliefs prior to a diagnosis of breast cancer appears to make a difference in adjustment. A study by Gall et al. (2009), found that women who had less spiritual/religious involvement prior to their cancer diagnosis, and then employed spiritual/religious resources during treatment, may experience spiritual struggle and doubt that could impact their long-term adjustment.

Now we get to the question of spirituality and religiosity. While religiosity can be pretty clearly defined as someone who subscribes to a set of religious beliefs, what exactly is spirituality? Can you still have spirituality if you don't follow a particular religion?

The tricky thing about defining spirituality is that it has so many meanings. I like to think that spirituality means "a feeling of being connected to something larger than yourself." I think it is also a feeling that all beings are interconnected, and there is a higher purpose or reason for life events. Therefore, you don't necessarily need to belong to, or follow the tenets of a particular religion in order to be spiritual.

In regards to breast cancer treatment, being spiritual seems to have the same positive effect on acceptance and wellbeing as being religious. How do you build up your feelings of spirituality? Try the following, both with yourself and with others:

  • Practice love and compassion
  • Forgive
  • Accept imperfections
  • Learn to be okay with the unknown

To help feel more connected to others:

  • Volunteer for a cause that is close to your heart.
  • Reach out and connect with friends and family. Seeing each other in person is best.
  • Practice a random act of kindness

Feel free to add your own ideas for building spirituality and growing a feeling of connectedness.

Even if you do not follow spirituality and/or religion, simply telling yourself that you will get better can work wonders. Our minds have an amazing influence over our bodies. You can also still feel connected to others without practicing spirituality and/or religion. In addition, practicing good self-care -- getting enough rest, eating healthy foods, going to your doctor appointments -- increases your ability to adapt and heal.
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