Seeking Spiritual Meaning When Cancer Strikes

December 22, 2015

When Rebecca Crane-Okada, PhD, RN, sees a new breast cancer patient for support at the Margie Petersen Breast Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, one of the questions she asks is whether the person has any religious or spiritual practices or beliefs “that are sustaining during times of crisis.”

According to a growing list of scientific studies, that question is relevant to the quality of life experienced by cancer patients and perhaps even has some bearing on the outcome of their treatments. At Saint John’s, much effort has been put into offering spiritual and integrative health services to cancer patients. Dr. Crane-Okada refers to this approach as “treating the whole person.”

That’s one of the main reasons Dr. Crane-Okada, director of the breast cancer navigation and integrative therapies programs at the Margie Petersen Breast Center and professor of oncology at the John Wayne Cancer Institute, joined the staff a few years ago.

Spirituality is a word that often surfaces in the world of cancer. Many people diagnosed with cancer undergo a period of questioning or reflecting on the meaning of such a monumental, life-changing event, Dr. Crane-Okada says.

“Even when individuals don’t profess a faith in God or a divine being, they often articulate a belief in something bigger than themselves, something that gives purpose and meaning in life.” – Dr. Rebecca Crane-Okada

“Almost everyone questions, in one way or another, why the diagnosis of cancer,” she explains. “Why me? Why now? People who have specific belief systems turn to their faith, to their God, to their religious or spiritual leaders for guidance. Even when the cancer diagnosis is not expected to be life-threatening, it may be the first time someone has faced any serious medical problem. So even if it’s not death one is facing, the thought of such major changes in one’s life as they now know it can be terrifying.”

The reaction can lead some cancer patients into a deeper exploration of spiritual or philosophical questions. The word “spirituality” can be tricky, Dr. Crane-Okada notes. She advises thinking of spirituality in the context of quality of life, which she defines as having four components: physical, social, emotional or psychological and spiritual well-being.

“Spirituality is a term used nowadays to refer to many different things,” she says. “Generally it refers to that which gives the soul sustenance, which brings joy, meaning or definition to one’s life. It may guide one’s response to a life-threatening or other traumatic event. Even when individuals don’t profess a faith in God or a divine being, they often articulate a belief in something bigger than themselves, something that gives purpose and meaning in life and will describe this.”

Research suggests there is value in devoting some time to spirituality while being treated for cancer. Studies published in a recent issue of the journal Cancer look at religion/spirituality and health outcomes in cancer survivors. These papers suggest that greater religion/spirituality is associated with generally better patient-reported physical, social, and mental health outcomes, including improved physical symptoms, function and the capacity to maintain satisfying relationships in the face of cancer.

“Spirituality has been important in cancer for a long time,” she says. “But one of the difficulties we’ve had is measuring its impact.”

The hospital’s spiritual care department is available to provide prayer, support and companionship just before surgery, during hospitalization or even during an outpatient visit. A social worker is also available to help patients connect with resources and to provide psychosocial support.

The Willow Sage Wellness Program, named in honor of the singer P!nk’s support of breast cancer prevention, includes nutrition education for individuals with a history of breast cancer and those at high risk for the disease, yoga classes, mindfulness and stress reduction education.

Additionally, Dr. Crane-Okada, in her role as a professor, and Maggie DiNome, MD, assistant professor of surgery at the Institute and acting director of the Margie Petersen Breast Center, are co-investigators on a study of acupuncture to reduce joint pain in women undergoing breast cancer treatment. They are also studying mindful movement to reduce worry and improve mindfulness attitude.

“In a Catholic health care system, we’re about taking care of the whole person: the values and mission of the organization are to express love and care and concern,” Dr. Crane-Okada says. “We do that through our deep faith beyond ourselves.”


How can someone tap into their inner spirit to reduce anxiety and increase the feeling of well-being? “There is no right or wrong way to any of this,” says Dr. Crane-Okada. Cancer patients can try a number of activities that might yield positive results.

  • Take time to be with yourself, being still
  • Do something you love
  • Unplug (from email, phone, computer)
  • Be around nature
  • Write your thoughts in a journal
  • Return to a religious or spiritual practice, such as prayer
  • Think about what is most important or meaningful for you
  • Talk to a counselor or spiritual director
  • For more information, see the online “Spirituality in Cancer Care” guide from the National Cancer Institute at
For more information on how to support integrative health programs, please call the Office of Development at 310-315-6111.