Spiritual Support When You Have Cancer

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 02/2019

You might consider yourself a spiritual person, or you might not. Either way, cancer can make you ask such questions as “What is my life’s purpose?” or “Why did this happen to me?” Finding spiritual support can be an important part of cancer care for you and your loved ones.

What is spiritual support?

Relieving symptoms and side effects is an important part of treatment called palliative care or supportive care. Spiritual support is one type of palliative care. It can help with some concerns and questions you and your loved ones have during cancer and treatment.

You can have palliative care, including spiritual support, at any time during treatment. This includes right after your diagnosis or during and after treatment.

Who provides spiritual support?

A member of your health care team called a chaplain or spiritual care advisor usually provides spiritual support. Chaplains are trained to talk about the major questions of life, death, and existence. They can also help with making a legacy and finding purpose. Chaplains work with people from every faith and background, including people with no religious faith.

A large hospital or cancer center often have several chaplains or advisors from different faiths. If you are not comfortable with the first person you talk with, ask your health care team about seeing someone else.

Your chaplain might work closely with a social worker at the hospital or clinic. Social workers help with practical, social, and sometimes emotional issues. These can include finding a ride to the clinic or anxiety over a diagnosis. This type of practical and social help can also ease spiritual pain, such as feeling discouraged or alone.

You can also find spiritual support if you belong to a religious community. If you feel comfortable, tell your religious community leader about the cancer and ask what support is available. Your pastor, rabbi, or other leader might visit you or organize community members to help you and your family.

Who can receive spiritual support?

Anyone who wants this type of palliative care can receive it at any time. For example, perhaps you just learned that you have cancer and are struggling with the news. You can ask your health care team about talking with a chaplain. Or, you might be a long-term cancer survivor who is worried the cancer will come back. You can talk to a spiritual advisor about your concerns and how to cope with them.

What if I am not religious?

You do not need to be religious to receive this type of palliative care. Spiritual support can help with symptoms and side effects of cancer and treatment no matter what your beliefs.

Chaplains are used to talking with people from many different faiths, as well as those who are not religious. They understand that your inspiration might come from nature or personal beliefs. Their job is to help relieve your spiritual pain.

Spiritual support for caregivers and loved ones

Having a spouse, child, or parent with cancer can bring up many spiritual questions. You might fear losing your family member or wonder if you somehow caused the cancer. Caregivers might feel exhausted, frustrated, or even angry at the person with cancer. Talking with a chaplain or spiritual advisor can help you understand your feelings and perhaps find some answers.

What can spiritual support help with?

Here are some of the problems a chaplain or spiritual care advisor can help with:

  • Feeling overwhelmed

  • Wondering if the cancer is a punishment

  • Having family problems

  • Feeling alone

  • Being angry at God or the universe

Your chaplain or spiritual care advisor often work with other members of your health care team. For example, your chaplain can find a counselor or other mental health professional to help with emotional needs. A social worker might also work with you and your chaplain.

Related Resources

What is the Role of a Chaplain in Cancer Care?

The 4 Corners of Palliative Care: The Role of Spiritual Support

How to Recognize Cancer Distress – and Cope with It

More Information

National Cancer Network: Spirituality in Cancer Care

National Comprehensive Cancer Network: Finding Comfort in Spirituality

ASCO answers: Palliative Care; Improving Quality of Life for People with Cancer and Their FamiliesDownload ASCO’s free booklet, Palliative Care, as a printable PDF in English (32 pages) or Spanish (36 pages). Order printed copies of the booklet in English from the ASCO Store.