Spiritual Care for Cancer Patients 

If you are reading this, it is possible that either you or a loved one is struggling with the reality of cancer. This uninvited disease touches the entire being of a person. In so doing, every aspect of a person’s relational life is affected. So this journey is not only a physical journey with medical outcomes; it is also an emotional and spiritual journey.

A major goal of this web page is to look into ways that spirituality might be helpful not only in coping with the disease, but also in coming to a new understanding of how the whole person is involved in the recovery process.

Before moving into specific areas of the cancer journey, let’s take a look at the meaning of spirituality in the context of a cancer diagnosis.

The root word is spirit – indicating life, presence, energy. When a person is ALIVE we often say, “What a spirit!” An expectation that we have is a certain hope of relationship because there IS life and presence and energy. There is a quality to a spirit. We say, “What a gentle spirit…What a vibrant spirit…There is sadness in that spirit.” We cannot quantify what this reality is; but we know it to be a reality.

How to think of spirituality then might be – the capacity any of us have for relationship… the relationship I have with myself, with others, with the very earth I live on, and also, the relationship I have with my Higher Power, however I define this Power.

Even when there is the possibility of a diagnosis of cancer, notice what happens to those aspects of my life where I am most related to myself, to others and to God. Might these be some of the first questions?

Relationship with My Self
How can this happen?…I take good care of my body, I eat right, I exercise. It feels like my body is betraying me. I feel like a stranger in my own skin. It feels like my body has become the enemy. Can I trust my body any longer? How do I tell people I have this disease? Do I trust that my body wants to be well, and is my friend?

Relationship with Others
Can I trust letting other people know how I feel, or will I keep it all to myself? Who can I tell? Who wants to hear this? Can I tell them everything? Do I need to keep some of this to myself? Do I have a right to expect support at this stage from others…everyone has their own problems.

Relationship with God
Do I start to pray for a miracle now? Can I ask for something from God when I have paid no attention to God for years? If God is so powerful, how can this kind of a disease keep attacking so many people? Am I selfish to pray that I don’t have cancer? Is God punishing me for something?

The truth of the matter is that the spirituality of the person and the loved ones is immediately affected – thrown off balance by even the possibility of a diagnosis. However, that same spirituality can become a powerful reality in the recovery process.

Incidentally – for some people, organized religion can be a huge support to a person’s spirituality. For others, organized religion might be a hindrance to the way spirituality is free to operate in a person’s life.

Having said this, there will be several installments of this web page. We will walk through the various stages that a person might experience in this life-changing journey. Please keep checking. They will appear every month. The topics will be as follows:
…Waiting for Diagnosis
…Receiving Diagnosis
…Preparing for Surgery
…Recovering from Surgery
…Moving into Treatment
…Achieving Remission
…Being a Survivor
…Waiting for Transplant
…Transplantation Time
…Recovery/Moving Back into Life
…Making the Most of Time
…Preparing for Death

The web pages will include aspects of the emotional challenges of the various stages of cancer treatment and suggestions as to how they might be met. There will be practices of imagery and prayer for each stage. There will be opportunities for you to share your own experiences, and your own suggestions of what has and is working for you. There will be a bibliography and a music file.

Chaplain Sandra M. Spencer, MA
Hematology/Oncology/Pastoral Care Department
Saint Louis University Hospital
Saint Louis, MO 63110

First Tests/Waiting for Diagnosis Time
I have just been through doctor visits (maybe many), tests, and possibly surgery. The pathology reports are not yet back. I am in the “Waiting Time.”

Generally this is a time of fear, a time of great emotional vulnerability, a time when life itself feels fragile. Waiting becomes a spiritual and emotional experience for the patient and family. Waiting is the kind of experience we as human beings, saturated with the immediacy of American culture, do not always handle well. It is a space where there is no knowledge available, where there is little or no control, and where words – even the presence of loved ones – does not comfort or help.

This might be the first inkling of how totally the whole person is involved in a process that is usually unexpected, not wanted, resisted and sometimes denied.

WHAT DO I DO WHILE I WAIT? I acknowledge my feelings to myself and others. I might be really afraid and need to be held. I might be angry at the timing, at the reality of what this could mean and need to find a place to cry out, to scream. I could feel numb and want to withdraw from everything around me.

Or I could alternate with all of the above and call it emotional confusion. I could feel physically nauseated. I could lose my appetite. I might not be able to sleep…all of this is SO NORMAL. In my own thinking and feeling, I try to stay in the present moment. The fantasies of what could happen come thick and fast. Hang on! Keep repeating the reality I know, and refuse to let my mind and imagination move into the fantasy I fear. Moving into the future brings with it fears that are unfounded and can paralyze not only me, but also my loved ones. It is in the present moment where the most HOPE can be found. It is in the present where my spiritual power (God) is active and healing. I will be gentle with myself – letting go of expectations of “bravery,” strength and undue heroism if I am usually the strong independent type. On the other hand, if I tend to see things in three dimensions, I will consciously try to keep perspective by checking my perceptions with others while still allowing myself the emotional expressions I need. I will find ways of engaging the spiritual energy available to me – in myself, through others, in the universe and in God as I know God. Prayer for myself, asking to be prayed for by others: family, friends, Church groups, support groups. All of these can be a powerful energy for trust and for hope in the time of waiting. It can clear the mind and heart to WAIT in a relatively calm space.

I will take specific quiet time each day for moving inside of that deepest part of myself where I become aware of the LIFE within me: I will become aware of the fact that I am breathing…inhaling…exhaling. I will become aware of my heart beating. I will affirm the reality that my body wants to live; my body wants to be strong. I will affirm the reality that right now God is sustaining me in life, the power and energy of God is available to my spirit. I rest in this God Who holds my future in tender care.

If Scripture is useful to me, I might want to find lines from a Psalm that I can repeat in the form of a mantra…God, You are my light and my salvation, Whom shall I fear? I might find it helpful to read some of the healing verses of the Gospels and meditate on them in such a way that I am present in the situation when Jesus walks up to the person asking for healing and says, “What do you want me to do for you?” I will expect that nothing will feel or seem normal for awhile. It can easily happen that I start something and lose energy quickly for the project. I might find concentrating almost impossible…reading a page and not knowing what I have read. I might find myself feeling edgy, impatient for no specific reason and wanting to be continually on the go. This is actually an aspect of GRIEF – letting into myself the possibility of impending change over which I will have little control.


For the Person Awaiting Diagnosis
Creator God, I am in Your hands. You have made me. You sustain me. But now I do not necessarily feel Your closeness. Because there is suspicion that I might have cancer, and because I have been through testing and do not have the results, I feel so afraid. There is no place around me that feels safe, no place inside me that feels whole. The possibilities for the future pound my imagination. The “what ifs” for my loved ones, my responsibilities in life, for me whirl around in my mind and heart. The waiting is driving me crazy. Please, God, where ever You are in all of this, come to me. Bring me back from the future into this present moment. It is HERE that I ask you to still the beating of my heart, to quiet my mind and to bring the power of my imagination into HOPE and TRUST.

I don’t want to have cancer; but if I do, please let it be able to be worked with so that living is part of my future. I need to trust Your plan for my life. I need to entrust my life to Your plan. Give me, please, courage, strength and patience.

Please bless my loved ones with all that they need during this waiting time. Help us to keep communicating with each other so that fear does not conquer us at this time. Amen.

Prayer for the Loved Ones of the Person Awaiting Diagnosis
Dear God, that we (I) are waiting to see if our beloved _______ has cancer feels like a slow motion nightmare. In some ways it seems to have come so fast; in other ways it feels something has been not right for a long time.

We are frightened as the prospect of cancer. Sometimes finding the words to say feels awkward and self-conscious. Please, God, let me be simply present, loving and attentive. Help me to let go of expectations that I will know what to say. Give me the strength to lean into an experience that brings death to mind. Help me also, to stay in the present, and dear God help me to pray.

Bless those lab techs that will be doing the pathology reports that they know what to look for and are able to find what they need to find. Give our doctors the integrity and professionalism they need to work with us truthfully.

Take care of _______. Surround ________ with Your light. Keep darkness, despair and fear from his/her spirit. Let him/her feel the support of our love, our presence and our prayer. We trust you with ______. Give us all Your peace while we wait. Amen.

When waking up in the morning – and at other times during the day – I will be conscious of what is going on in the present: the way I am breathing, the way my heart is beating, what it feels like to be alive THIS DAY. I will notice the beauty around me. When the rush of memory hits me that I am waiting a diagnosis, I will receive this memory with both hands and gently put it on a shelf in my mind. I will say: This is not yet the time to open you up, so I put you to one side and I will go on with life. Today I will be intentional about things and people that I am grateful for…and I will tell them so.

Chaplain Sandra M. Spencer, MA
Hematology/Oncology/Pastoral Care Department
Saint Louis University Hospital
Saint Louis, MO 63110

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