Spirituality can exert a tremendous impact on one’s health and promote recovery from trauma and illness, including cancer. Throughout the history of mankind, spirituality and religion have played a major role in healing a variety of physical and mental illnesses. Cancer is one of the most devastating illnesses, as it affects one’s physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being.

An increasing body of scientific literature supports the concept that spirituality can significantly improve healing from cancer and promote the coping response of caregivers and healthcare professionals. We believe that spirituality is an important component of the healing process and should be integrated with conventional medicine to treat this complex disease.

The Dimensions of Spirituality and Healing: An Overview of a Harvard University Catalyst Symposium

By Ellen Barlow, January 2015

Seventy-one percent of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit, and 80 percent of blacks and 61 percent of Latinos say these beliefs are very important in their lives, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.

“For those of us interested in reducing health disparities, this may be particularly important,” said Alexandra Shields, HMS associate professor of medicine and director of the Harvard-MGH Center on Genomics, Vulnerable Populations and Health Disparities, as she kicked off the “Spirituality, Health and Health Disparities Symposium” at Harvard Medical School on Dec.  4, 2014.

“We can’t afford to ignore the potential effect of spirituality and religion on health,” Shields said.

Can religious and spiritual beliefs negatively affect health outcomes if people resist treatment because they are putting themselves in the hands of God? Or can spiritual belief and hope be positively leveraged in healing? These were the questions Shields and other speakers debated.

The focus of the symposium, sponsored by the Health Disparities Research Program of Harvard Catalyst | The Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center, was to encourage more research into the health effects of spirituality and religion, said Shields, who is codirector of the effort.

One goal of the symposium was to begin building bridges between Harvard faculty already engaged in this kind of research through discussion with the epidemiologists, theologians, public health researchers, psychologists and sociologists who were in attendance.

The national and Harvard-wide experts in attendance included researchers who are tackling the challenges of measuring spirituality and those who are investigating the biological pathways through which spirituality, like stress-management and mindfulness techniques, may operate.

Stories of spirituality and health

Unlike most academic symposia, the gathering began with stories told by spiritual leaders who described their personal awakening to the spiritual and sacred: a Jamaican nun, an African-American pastor who is also a retired pediatrician and a Buddhist monk who holds a PhD.

Sister Marie Chin spoke of a transformative experience she had while attending a United Nation’s women’s conference in Beijing, China, in 1995. At first, she said she despaired after hearing women’s stories of cruelty, oppression and pain.

She then realized that by telling their stories, “every woman’s pain became a little more bearable because it was shared.”

Though many of the women wouldn’t have described themselves as churchgoers, Chin said by sharing their stories, “they felt a surge within — a profound sense of power, a force beyond themselves.”

Speaker Gloria White-Hammond told how she was a practicing pediatrician at the South End Community Health Center in Boston when, 20 years ago, she felt a calling to go into the ordained ministry.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself as a spiritual being through my medical practice,” White-Hammond said.

White-Hammond described a 5-year-old girl with leukemia whose example became a powerful reminder that healing is about more than saving lives.  Sometimes, she said, it simply involves exercising compassion to alleviate pain.

She said the little girl had suffered tremendously through treatments and one day said she wanted no more. The child said she just wanted to go home. The nurses gave her a party in her room with cake, party hats and singing. The little girl said she had prayed to God, and he told her she was going to heaven where she would see her grandmother and wouldn’t be sick anymore.

“That’s why we’re having a party, she told me,” recalled White-Hammond.

The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, founding director of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, entered a Buddhist monastery in India at age 10. He said he was drawn there by dreams of mountains and men in saffron robes.

“Spiritual experiences are as real as awake moments,” he said. “Like with love, kindness, compassion, fear, surprise — there are stories around these powerful experiences, but no metrics.” He added that there is a tendency to polarize secular versus religious life.

“Life is really both, but people are just not paying attention,” he said.

So how can researchers and health care providers capture this elusive, multi-dimensional aspect of life that changes over a person’s lifetime?

“It’s like trying to capture Beethoven’s ninth symphony by whistling,” said Kenneth Pargament, a Bowling Green State University professor of psychology. But now there are hundreds of measures that attempt to do just that, he added.

Researchers from Duke University, the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health and the University of Liverpool described the survey instruments they have developed to create these measurements.

New approaches

Andrea Baccarelli, the Mark and Catherine Winkler Associate Professor of Environmental Epigenetics at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, proposed that spirituality be looked at through the lens of epigenetics.

DNA methylation is one epigenetic mechanism that changes the way genes perform. When methylation goes awry, it contributes to disease.

Bacarelli said that he found through the Black Women’s Health Study that a history of child abuse is associated with higher methylation levels in the glucocorticoid receptor pathways in the hippocampus.

“The effect was attenuated somewhat in women with emotional support during childhood,” Bacarelli said. “Does spirituality modulate methylation too? This should be studied,” he added.

There is also increasing evidence that mindfulness techniques — including the relaxation response pioneered by Herbert Benson, the HMS Mind/Body Medical Institute Professor of Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, as well as repetitive prayer, yoga and meditation — can cause physiological and psychological changes.

Towia Libermann, HMS associate professor of medicine at Beth-Israel Deaconess Medical Center, described his team’s multiple studies on the effects of mindfulness techniques on gene expression in immune system response pathways that are also related to stress.

The religion factor

More than 3,000 studies indicate that religion has a potentially beneficial effect on health, said speaker Neal Krause of the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Belief in a deity engenders hope, which has been linked to positive physiological changes, Krause said. Those who regularly attend religious services benefit from a community that is there to help members cope in difficult times, he added.

Others discussed how religion could play a part in interventions with adolescents around drug and alcohol use or to improve cigarette smoking quit rates among African Americans.

Tracy Balboni, HMS associate professor of radiation oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, cited the results found in a national Coping with Cancer Study, led by Dana-Farber.

“Patients receiving any form of spiritual support reported a higher quality of life at the end of life than those who didn’t,” she noted.

Both those who received support from their medical team or from their religious community were more apt to transition to hospice care and to decline aggressive treatment, she said.

The symposium also spotlighted many areas where further research was needed. To spur new research, Shields announced a pilot grant program funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Up to five $50,000 one-year grants are available, she said.

Cancer Recovery’s 5-Fold Understanding of Spirituality and Healing

By Greg Anderson November 2020


What do you see when you look at your life?  Do you see a body riddled with disease, dreams hopelessly derailed, a family frightened and life lived in despair?  Or can you see a precious moment, a special instant in space and time where mind and spirit are ill only if you allow it?  Can you see the beauty and grace, even the perfection, in your life without coloring those qualities with the pain of cancer?

Peter Halters was a 40-year-old father who developed pancreatic cancer.  It was a difficult battle, especially since he wanted so very much to live.  His valiant efforts were an inspiration to many people.  During one of our telephone sessions, Peter remarked, “I think the spiritual part began to make sense last night.  We were at the dinner table, the whole family.  And I saw something different.  It really stuck with me.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, before last night, I always saw the obvious at the dinner table:  the chicken, the salad, and the mashed potatoes.  I’d see my wife, looking tired and worried like she was always running behind schedule.  And the kids with a thousand stories of things happening at school.  That was what was in front of me.  That’s what I saw.

“But last night I saw from my heart,” continued Peter, struggling to hold back tears.  “I looked around that table and saw something quite different.  For the first time, I was able to see this precious moment where the minds, bodies, and souls of our family were gathered together to break bread and be nourished.  There was so much more there than just the food.  There were lives filled with potential for good.  We were there to help each other, to love and care for each other.”

Peter paused as he relived that special moment in his mind.  “Then the children got into an argument with their mother.  But instead of driving me up the wall, this conflict was somehow different.  Or at least I saw it differently.  It seemed to be a natural expression of love toward each other, a way of saying, ‘I care.’”

Peter was looking through spiritual eyes.  Spiritual eyes allow us to see the value of what is simple and readily available in our lives in spite of the circumstances in which we may find ourselves.

“I awoke from my surgery,” said Pontea Kamal, “and there in my room was my husband.  He was holding our little daughter, propping her up on the hospital bed.  And she was squeezing my finger.  Her big dark eyes looked at me, and she smiled as she said, ‘I love you, Mommy.’  It was such a precious moment.  Now, since my cancer, I see so much deeper into life.”

Make a commitment.  Join me in no longer dwelling on what is wrong and taking inventory of what is missing.  Let’s put our focus on all that is right, all that we have.  And we have a great deal.

This level of awareness brings a vastly different experience of cancer and of life.  Embrace this consciousness.  There are miraculous moments in your life right now—each and every day.  See them.

An Important Thing You Can Do

Stop.  Take a few minutes to see life in this new more spiritual light.  Ask yourself, “What do my countless blessings really mean to me?”  This new awareness may contribute more toward your well-being than the most potent medicine.


Too many people equate victory over cancer with a doctor’s report that says, “This patient is clinically free of cancer.”  I understand that desire, I share that desire, and, in fact, my records state exactly that.  I wish you the same.  But that is not the most important part of the journey through cancer.

Please read carefully.  Consider these next words deeply.  For the person who opens his or her mind and spirit, the cancer experience evolves into a transcendent spiritual journey.  The real triumph over cancer is realized in the nurturing of personal spiritual growth.

Some people say, “Greg, I’ll settle for a cure.  Just get my life back to normal.”  Don’t settle for that!  You don’t want things to get back to normal.  After your experience with cancer, things will never be the same again.  You want a new and better life.  That life comes in the form of a new spiritual walk.

Cancer has pounded you with a million hammer blows.  But you have the last word as to how those blows will shape you.  William James, the distinguished psychologist and philosopher, declared that his generation’s most important discovery was that human beings, by changing their inner attitudes of mind, could change the outer aspects of their lives.

I see you changing in that way, using the hammer blows of cancer to change your inner state of spirit.  By making personal spiritual growth our aim, the most important discovery will be to use the experience of cancer to shape us into wonderfully different people.  Indeed, cancer can reshape our attitudes, soften our spirits, and transform our lives.

It’s personal spiritual growth we seek.  You have those seeds of well-being inside you.  But it’s up to you to believe and act on them.

Think of personal spiritual growth as the natural and logical extension of your wellness journey.  The steps are simple.  You are going to make a decision to do all possible to get well again.  You are going to devote time and energy to understanding your treatment options, to improving your diet, to daily exercise, to making positive beliefs and attitudes real in your life and to nurturing your most important relationships.

Then, in a very seamless progression, you’ll explore and develop your own practices of gratitude, forgiveness, unconditional love, and more.  It’s the spiritual part of the wellness journey.

Are you ready?  It’s the most important part of the trip.

Cynicism has no place here.  You cannot climb up the spiritual mountain by thinking downhill thoughts.  If you feel that life is filled with despair, that it is gloomy and hopeless, and that spiritual growth is impossible for you, it is because you are gloomy and hopeless.  You must change your inner world, which will in turn change your outer world.

Powerful healing awaits you.  Associate with people who are walking the spiritual path.  Your spiritual journey can be advanced by meeting and mingling with those who have a spiritual vision.  Be inspired by our great spiritual ancestors from all the ages.

And pray.  Be still and prayerfully listen to God.  Don’t beg or plead.  Pray, “Thy will be done.”  Then listen.  And then act.

Please, don’t limit God’s infinite possibilities by imposing your conditions for wellness.  God can use you even with cancer.  Be open to that spiritual experience.  Remember, with God, all things are possible.

An Important Thing You Can Do

Start by making a commitment to practice a key spiritual quality for just one hour.  Then extend the time.  Keep this as your central goal.  Pray and listen for guidance.  Opportunities for practice will present themselves every moment of the day.  Seize them.


Do you want to free all your energy to heal?  Forgive!  Let go!  Release!

Forgiveness is wellness work that brings with it huge rewards.  Forgiveness links our newfound awareness of the healing dynamics with our awakened understanding of our emotional style.  The promised benefit of this linkage is the emotional and spiritual peace and serenity we need for healing.

This is a big promise.  Forgiveness can deliver.

I believe forgiveness, when it actually becomes a way of thinking and living, is the single most powerful key to wellness.  Forgiveness is a trusted technique by which our thoughts and perceptions are changed, transforming the harmful effects of toxic emotions to the healing reality of compassion, even love.  Forgiveness allows us to switch our focus from fear to love; it helps us change what can be changed and allows us to make peace with the rest—a profound dimension of healing.

Opportunities to learn and practice forgiveness are everywhere.  The obvious teachers of forgiveness come in the form of people, most often individuals who antagonize us, the ones whom we can’t stand to be around.

But more important than forgiving others is teaching ourselves to be self-forgiving.  It all starts with our own power and control.

Let’s be honest; we hold much resentment and shame against ourselves; we don’t let go easily.  In the quiet moments we judge ourselves harshly, “I’m so stupid.  I’m fat.  I’m ugly.  I’m not worthy.  I probably deserve this illness.”  The list is without end.

Now, with cancer, like never before, this is the moment to release that self-condemnation.  The only way is through self-forgiveness.

Let go.  I observe so many cancer patients carrying self-concepts of unworthiness.  These are false and deadly beliefs.  Yes, we may have done something undesirable, but that is our behavior and does not equate with being an unworthy person.  Release those feelings of unworthiness.

A young single mother shared, “I was a drug addict and a prostitute.  Now cancer.  But I think I deserve it.  God is punishing me.”

“No,” I responded.  “Absolutely not!  Release those beliefs.  They are serving only to condemn you to a life of dis-ease.  Forgive yourself.  Forgive others.  Ask God to forgive you.  Release it all.”

There’s more.  Beyond ourselves, our perceptions of others can also create a battleground of emotional turmoil.  It is so easy to judge others.  Judgmental behavior tears at the fabric of relationships and kindles the fires of resentment.  Cancer is, among other things, an opportunity to learn and practice the difference between acceptance and approval, to transcend judgment.

I urge you to practice acceptance.  A man with metastatic prostate cancer came to our offices and soon began to tell the tale of his son who was gay.  There was so much strife between the two—fights, accusations, condemnation.  The son left for college and never returned home.  For over six years, the two hardly spoke.  It weighed so heavily on the father.  Then his cancer diagnosis.

“I knew that forgiveness and reconciliation were central to my getting well again,” said the man.  “I finally reached my son on the phone and said I would like to see him.  When we met, the first thing I promised was to never again mention his lifestyle.  I made a decision to release it all—his lifestyle and my health—to God.”

Forgive.  Let go.  Release.  The spiritual dimension of healing hinges on forgiveness.  All of us have imperfect natures.  All of us exhibit behaviors that don’t match our potential.  Forgiveness allows us to accept imperfection without having to approve of it.  Have you noticed?  Not everything in life meets your expectations.  But we can find peace through acceptance.  Yes, we still distinguish right from wrong.  But forgiving ourselves and others is at the heart of practicing acceptance.  Let go.

Join me.  Let’s begin to make the practice of forgiveness a habit.  Forgiveness is experienced on two levels. The first is the most obvious.  There is an event:  Someone is wronged or we perceive an attack.  That behavior needs to be forgiven.  When we can say, “I forgive myself for _______,” or “I forgive ______ (another) for ______,” then we have embarked upon the forgiveness journey.

The second level of forgiveness changes our perception of what happened.  Yes, an event occurred.  But the real problem starts when we begin to judge what happened, when we label ourselves or the other person as bad, hurtful, mean, stupid, or with some other less-than-kind attribute.  We perceived the event as unfavorable; the event didn’t meet our approval.  We judge, even condemn, the people involved.

The alternative?  Acceptance.  Accept ourselves.  Accept others.  Accept that events happen.  Accept that life is often far from our glittering ideals.  Forgive and accept.  This is a far better way to live.

People who are, or believe themselves to be near death often come to the realization that forgiveness heals.  Feuds, differences, and deep hurts suddenly seem less important at this time.  I can understand.  I had to learn this lesson myself.  Literally thousands of patients share similar stories.

Marilyn Ellis, in the middle of a battle with ovarian cancer, felt terribly ill at ease when her mother and father visited.  Marilyn and her mother would make noble efforts to get along with each other, but they seldom fully succeeded.  Old patterns of attack and defense were constantly cropping up between them.  Child care, cooking, homemaking, religion—the particulars didn’t seem to matter.  Her mother wanted a more conservative daughter.  Marilyn wanted a more enlightened mother.

“It was driving me crazy,” said Marilyn.   “During her last visit, I was ready to throw her out.  But then it occurred to me, God isn’t looking at my mother and thinking, ‘Mildred is such a bitch.’  How could I pretend to want to get along with my mother if I was so consumed by my judgment of her errors?  I had to practice acceptance and get off my fixation with approval.

“So I made a commitment, ‘I’ll try this for an afternoon.  I’ll focus on acceptance and give up approval.’   From that moment, the situation and the relationship started to shift.  As I was more accepting of her, she became more accepting of me.  We’re a long way from best buddies,” conceded Marilyn, “but there is a growing bond between us.”

Maybe you struggle with hostility and resentment.  If so, forgive.  The amazing payoff of forgiveness is that so many people do get well after letting go.  Lives are certainly made better; many are made longer.  But it strikes me that if one is willing to forgive during the last moments of life, why not do it earlier?  Like right now?

How often do we need to forgive?  Always.  Don’t drag the memories of past hurts and mistakes into your present moments.  Nothing from the past is important enough to allow it to pollute our present.  Forgive.  Let go of judgment.  Become a shining example of compassion.  You deserve it.  You’ll change your life—forever!

An Important Thing You Can Do

Choose just one hurt or mistake and forgive everyone concerned with it.  Say out loud, “(Name), I totally and completely forgive you.  I release you to the care of God.  I affirm your highest good.”  Mean it.  Now feel the warmth of forgiveness.  Choose to forgive one person each day.


What is the least-healthy spiritual habit, the one that causes disease of every kind?  It’s ingratitude—the lack of thankfulness, our inadequate appreciation for all the blessings we enjoy.

Have you expressed your thankfulness today?  We all have so many blessings to appreciate every day of our lives.  But most of us overlook them.  The conscious practice of being grateful is central to the healing process.

Even with cancer, even in the middle of a difficult treatment cycle, even in your darkest and most fearful hours, be thankful for all you do have.  For life, for love, for family, for friends, for the awesome beauty of nature, for the presence of God, for all these things and more, be thankful.

Why do I feel so strongly about gratitude’s healing power?  It’s because I have seen gratitude bring more significant and rapid improvements in the lives of cancer patients than any other single action.  Thousands of survivors are convinced that there is a physiological correlative to gratitude and their bodies respond.  I agree.

Be grateful.  If you wish to cultivate a deeper attitude of gratitude, I suggest you begin to see yourself as a guest who is only visiting here on earth.  All that you have is not really yours; it is a gracious gift from your host.  You are privileged to enjoy the gifts of friends and family, home and transportation, food and recreation, vocation and service, during your stay.  Even your health, no matter what the state, is another of those gifts.

Jill Phillips lay near death in a small rural Nebraska hospital after being told she was “filled” with cancer and that it was inoperable.  Mired in despair and self-pity, she could see nothing for which she could be thankful.  “I was divorced, my two children were grown and lived in different parts of the country.  I hated my dead-end job.  My life seemed miserable.

“But one night I looked out of my hospital window to see a deep dark sky that was filled with stars.  I shut off all the lights in my room and just gazed at the sky for what must have been hours.  I started to ask a lot of questions:  ‘What is this huge universe about”  What is my place in it?  Why am I sick?’  I can’t say I got a lot of answers.  But I did get a different perspective.

“I became thankful,” continued Jill, “grateful just for being a part of this huge and wonderful world.  I realized that in my fifty-plus years, I had been able to experience so much.  The marvel of giving birth to two other lives—what a miracle!  The beauty of the country, where I feel such strong roots;   I was so grateful to live here rather than in a city.  The deep friendship I had with my sister—I was so thankful for her love.  That night at the window changed my whole perspective on my problems.”

Like Jill, we too can capture true well-being when we choose gratitude.  But so many roadblocks on the cancer journey seem to detour us, to mire us in ruts of ingratitude and self-pity.  We’re so busy with appointments and treatments, discomfort and despair, fear and pain, that we lose our perspective.  We tend to look at the cancer journey as a long and twisted path, filled with potholes.  There seems to be nothing for which we can be thankful.  This is faulty and self-destructive thinking.

Everyday start saying aloud, “I am so grateful for all I have been given, even my last breath.”  Exude gratitude.  It transforms the very experience of illness and of life.  I implore you, see beyond the day-to-day experiences that seem so all-consuming.  Treasure the wonder of life.  Become aware of your “guest status” in this brief moment in time and space.  Be thankful.  Exude gratitude.  It heals.

An Important Thing You Can Do

Complete the following sentence:  “I am so happy and grateful now that ___________________________________.

Express your gratitude—every hour of every day.


Loving heals.  Even though there may be times when we are lost in the abyss of our physical maladies or buried in the agony of our emotional “awfulizing,” with each moment comes a new opportunity to choose loving.  This is a decision that truly heals.

I prefer the word loving over love.  It denotes the action necessary to bring the idea of love to life.  Love is not loving until it is released, until it is intentionally given.

Loving without conditions is an intentional choice we make to determine what is coming through us rather than what is come to us.  The choice to love means we don’t have to wait for the medical test results, the doctor’s assurances, the elusive remission, or the hoped-for cure.  We can choose to love now, this moment.  And the next moment.  And the next.  We always have this power of choice, regardless of the circumstances.  This choice heals.

Consider this perspective.  The crippling fears surrounding cancer are actually the absence of love.  The fear is like darkness that is merely the absence of light.  You don’t solve a problem of darkness by yelling at it or trying to strike at it.  If you want to get rid of the darkness, you turn on a light.

So it is with fear.  You don’t fight it.  You replace fear with love.

This is a profound and radical call, not some live-with-loving-feelings suggestion.  Loving is more than a thin veneer.  Loving is an act of heroism and courage of the highest order.  You should not seek or even expect accolades.  Unconditional loving is not a decision surrounded by pomp and circumstance.  Most often is has to do with small choices.  “How do I choose to respond to this person?”  “How might I focus on the positive?”  “How can I best help another person?”  “How can I best love myself?”

By most standards, the conditions and circumstances of cancer do not inspire loving.  Taken by themselves, the conditions may elicit despair; the cancer journey has many such moments.  But we can take the loving action anyway!  Invariably, the result is a renewed sense of hope that results in a strong biochemical “live” signal to body, mind, and spirit.

Loving starts with self-loving.  You can hope to know wellness only from a position of personal emotional and spiritual strength.  Self-loving is the wellspring of this vital force.  Affirm your great value; cancer does not detract from your self-worth.  Self-loving is the root of recovery for thousands of patients.

Does loving seem too difficult a task?  Does your mind say that you can never be at peace until the cancer is gone?  Do you feel that a total and complete physical cure is the only acceptable answer?  Does it seem impossible to love with the sword of cancer balancing precariously over your head?

Love anyway.  Focus on the love that comes through you and direct it to others.  For if you love, you will be well.

Loving is the first and last word in healing, the great balm that quiets distress, the only real “magic bullet” against cancer, and the strongest vaccine to combat malignancy.

Our greatest enemy is not disease by despair.  Unconditional loving is the healer.

An Important Thing You Can Do

It is decision time.  Decide to practice unconditional loving for the next hour.  And the next hour, and the next.  You will know healing—something far greater than a cure.


Now that you’ve invested time studying spirituality and healing, and following at least some of the steps, you’re aware that there is much you can do to improve your well-being.  Your choices and actions truly make an enormous difference.  In partnership with your medical team, you are on the pathway to healing. But most people don’t know these powerful truths.  Or if they do, they have only a vague acquaintance with the strategies, not a working knowledge.  They deserve more.

Share this hope with others who have been diagnosed with cancer.  Discuss these ideas.  Encourage one another.  Make it your new priority to walk the path of wellness with someone else.  This has the cumulative effect of helping yourself while helping another.