Licensed counselor, family therapist and cancer survivor, Mike Verano, shares his observations on how illness and prayer impacts cancer patients’ stance on spirituality.
As a pacifist in the war on cancer, I’m not one to use battle analogies when describing the challenges of this diagnosis. However, I think the expression "there are no atheists in foxholes" is befitting.
The obvious meaning of this expression is when sitting on the edge of life or death, not only does one believe there is a God, one begins a running dialogue with this higher power; a dialogue commonly known as prayer.
According to a recent CDC study, 69 percent of cancer patients say they pray for their health. If I had to guess, I would say the other 31 percent are doing the same thing, but just call it something else. The study also revealed, “People who found feelings of transcendence or meaningfulness or peace reported feeling the least physical problems.”
Therefore, an applicable expression could be, “There are no nonbelievers in chemo rooms." This speaks volumes about the connection between spirituality and surviving tough times.
Spirituality Is Important for What It Provides, Not What It’s Called
Spirituality is defined as, “A connection to a force larger than oneself.” While many people feel the need to name this force, its name is not nearly as important as what it represents. The designation pales in comparison to what it can provide to those who are facing life’s big questions.
During my own treatment, I went with the more-is-better philosophy. I connected with as many possible sources of a higher power as I could get my nervously shaking hands on. The list included:
Being able to draw from this potpourri of spiritual options greatly affected my everyday experience—not only of my cancer treatment, but my life as a whole.
In my work as a therapist, when I meet others who are going through a health crisis, I will often introduce the topic of spirituality. For some clients, this can be a warning sign they’ve encountered a counselor who is going to try to convert them. I quickly reassure clients this topic has been researched and can impact their overall wellbeing.
Almost everyone I’ve met has gone on to talk freely about his or her beliefs and how they are helping—or, at times, hindering—their attempts to cope with crises.
People’s reactions to their spiritual natures during challenging times fascinates me. Many people have told me they’ve leaned heavily on their personal understanding of God and have prayed for healing. This always takes me back to my own private moments, surrounded by the dark unknown, trying to compose the perfect prayer.
Unless my chemobrain is playing tricks on me, I can say I never prayed to have my cancer taken away. Instead, I used various practices to calm my wandering mind, short-circuit the stress response, implant the intention to live a life of wellness and restore a balance between my body and mind. When I used a go-to prayer, it was some version of, “Give me the strength to get through this moment.”
Despite doubts, fears and emotional breakdowns, I found this prayer was always answered.
The Connection Between Illness and Spiritual Awakening
Prayer can help us heal whether we believe in a particular religious realm or not. No single religious faith, dogma or belief system can lay claim to being the “it” factor when it comes to this potentially healing power.
As a student of Eastern philosophies and a Reiki practitioner, I believe in energy systems and their direct connection to both illness and wellness. As someone brought up in the Christian faith, I also believe in following the guidance of sages, prophets and saints. However, we frame our understanding of spirituality, and to whomever or whatever we pray, I believe it's the willingness to let go of our will and rest in the present moment that provides real benefit.
For many people, it takes a health crisis, or other traumatic life event, to direct attention to the spiritual realm. This should give us pause to reflect on the deeper meaning of illness.
It should come as no surprise many cancer patients report awakening to “what’s really important” as a result of their diagnoses. The Buddhist peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, tells us we should embrace our illness in the same way we embrace our wellness and find meaning in our suffering. Jesus said, “Pick up your cross and follow me.” The psychologist, Carl Jung, said there is no birth of consciousness without pain.
If cancer, or any other illness, can help us transform our suffering into peace and our sorrow into joy, then I say “amen” to that.