June 15, 2009
Spirituality & Cancer
Nancy Hassett Dahm
Cancer has a way of leading people toward a search for meaning. The search has more to do with a growing need for spirituality, than for religion. Some may say they are the same, but spirituality and religion are indeed different. Spirituality is a connection to, and reverence for, all that is universal. Spirituality has no doctrine; no formal rules for a belief system. Religion, on the other hand, is grounded in, well - ground rules.
While many of us find comfort in our religion, there may be a greater opportunity in finding meaning through spirituality.
A diagnosis of cancer compels a person to ask the ultimate human questions, "Who am I? Why am I here? What happens to me, after I'm gone?" I believe that religion and spirituality have a very important place in life, especially when confronting these complex, existential issues. Although we rarely acknowledge the fact that we are mortal, having cancer begs us to look our mortality right in eyes; the very seat of our soul.
But acknowledging mortality equates to embracing vulnerability. Alas, each of us must accept that we are not in control; that we all acquiesce - at some point -- to a higher authority. If you are like most people, the depth of your spiritual connection is akin to being in the shallow end of the pool. You may explore various depths, and often marvel at seemingly limitless unanswered questions and mysteries, until you accept that the far end of the pool is really the boundless, deep end of a magnificent ocean.
I too, am like most people. But I'm learning, and I'm finding new avenues to search for meaning, significance, and greater purpose in life.
As a nurse who has spent years caring for cancer patients, I realized long ago that people need to feel their life mattered in a significant way. I felt a responsibility to show them that indeed, they are loved and part of us all. Finding a way to bring them the peace of mind they could not give themselves took me on a search for greater spirituality. It was for myself as much as for them. In helping others I was finding my own way; my own road to understanding.
We all have the same concerns, but we typically internalize these life-meaning questionswhen we become seriously ill. Life has a way of shielding us from certain realities. We are, after all, living. Even with cancer, we are living, but often not very well. With cancer, we live mostly in fear of the unknown. With cancer, we are still fighting to live, and push away notions of an eventual mortal end. Although all cancer patients don't die, and in fact most live, the confrontation with a disease that opens the door to our mortality pushes us to cling on to life.
So why is it important to have a sense of spirituality? It is important because it will help you to live better. It will help you to live with a heightened sense of hope and meaning. It will serve you in more ways than you realize. The beauty of spirituality is that it enables you to create your own private place of being. Is it prayer? It can be, but doesn't have to be. Is it meditation? It can be, but again, doesn't have to be. Spirituality is contemplating anything and everything in relation to your sense of being; finding personal significance in the seemingly insignificant, to that which holds the greatest significance - your relationship with God.
I have found that philosophy has helped me develop a greater sense of spirituality. I use the philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Marcus Aurelius to help cancer patients find meaning in their own life. Philosophy is universal and non-sectarian, and speaks to the soul of most of us who are uncertain or fearful of the mysteries of life and death. Mostly, philosophy serves as a moral compass, teaching us the many ideals of a meaningful, purposeful life, and the permanence of the soul. Socrates, and Marcus Aurelius, for example, have a very calming effect on the mind. They make sense. After all, philosophy is grounded in logic. Often, the ideas of these philosophers are exactly what cancer patients and all people need. They provide the kind of connectivity to each upon another and a universe which teems with hope and joy.
So, the benefits of using philosophy to increase your sense of spirituality are many. You will feel calmer, have less fear, and anxiety. You will feel less stressful, because your focus will be on reading reassuring messages of life. You will probably feel a weight lifted from your shoulders when you realize that we all make mistakes, and you will ìsee the fountain of good within youî. You learn to live a mindful life, paying attention to the often missed "little things" and increasing your awareness of everything around you.
For example, you may come to relish how the coffee smells in the morning, the simple beauty of the ìfeelî of a hand in yours, the texture of flowers, the feel of the wind on your face, and how the light filters through your window. Just reading what the philosophers have said may very well take you from the shallow end of the pool to the deep end of spiritual comfort.
I leave you with a section of Cicero's On the Republic - Scipio's Dream (51 BC):
Strive on indeed, and be sure that it is not you that is mortal, but only your body. For that man whom your outward form reveals is not yourself; the spirit is the true self, not that physical figure which can be pointed out by the finger. Know, then, that you are a god, if a god is that which lives, feels, remembers, and foresees, and which rules, governs, and moves the body over which it is set, just as the supreme God, above us rules this universe. And just as the eternal God moves the universe, which is partly mortal, so an immortal spirit moves the frail body.