Religious and Spiritual Approaches
Examples of religious and spiritual approaches
Nancy Hepp, MS, BCCT Project Manager
Michael Lerner, PhD, BCCT Partner and Co-founder
Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, BCCT Senior Researcher
Last updated August 23, 2021
Writing about the role of religion and spirituality in healing is one of the most difficult things to do. The reason is that the experience of the divine—or whatever you choose to call the realm of spirit—is by definition beyond words. And yet in the Commonweal Cancer Help Program we have witnessed hundreds of people for whom the mystery of spirit has been the most powerful dimension of their experience of healing. This can be true whether they are healing physically or not.
Spiritual Approaches in Medical Care
Religious or spiritual experience can have a transformative effect on healing.
Spiritual healing has many definitions and practices according to the many spiritual traditions. The Cambridge Dictionary defines spiritual healing as “the activity of making a person healthy without using medicines or other physical methods, sometimes as part of a religious ceremony.”1 Note the word “sometimes” in this last phrase.
Spirituality is not the same as religiosity, although they may intersect and overlap. No authoritative, widely accepted definitions exist, but “according to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, spirituality is a relationship between a person and a power greater than themselves that improves their lives, whereas religion is a specific practice connected to an organized group.”2
Spirituality is a relationship between a person and a power greater than themselves that improves their lives, whereas religion is a specific practice connected to an organized group.
Spiritual Approaches in Medical Practice
Research indicates that a significant percentage of patients are interested in including spiritual beliefs and practices in their medical and health approaches.4 A 2002 survey of American adults by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics found that three of the top five most popular complementary healing practices involved prayer.5 Prayer and other spiritual healing practices were similarly popular among Australian women in another report.6 In contrast, patients report that healthcare providers provide spiritual care infrequently.7
Spiritual and Faith-based Approaches to Healing: Review and Evidence
Religious Teachings on Health
The connections between religion and health are ancient. Several verses from the Jewish Ketuvim, Christian Bible and Muslim Quran (Koran) speak to health practices relevant to cancer:
General or Unspecified Approaches
In a small study, 12 breast cancer patients undergoing long-term hormone treatment were given ten weekly sessions of unspecified “spiritual healing” by four healers registered with the National Federation of Spiritual Healers. All patients continued their hormone treatment while participating in the study. Reported positive effects of the spiritual healing:
- Alleviation of the physical side effects of their treatment
- Increased energy levels
- Enhanced well-being
- Emotional relaxation
- Re-engagement with precancer activities
An intercessor is one who takes the place of another or pleads another's case. Intercessory prayer can be defined as "holy, believing, persevering prayer whereby someone pleads with God on behalf of another or others who desperately need God's intervention."13
Through the millennia of human history, medicine men and women known as shamans have conducted the ancient human art of guiding sick people through life-threatening illness, whether back to recovery or through the dying process. According to Robin Cathleen Coale, “a shaman works to restore balance and wholeness by addressing the root cause of the problem. Many methods are used in shamanic healing, including soul retrieval, retrieval of a spiritual ally, removal of unwanted energies, soul remembering, ancestral work, psychopomp (helping the deceased to cross over into the Light) and hands on healing.”18
Many meditative practices include a spiritual component, and some are deeply spiritual.
Meditation is marked by focusing attention, regulating breathing, and raising awareness of thoughts and feelings to achieve inner calm, physical relaxation, psychological balance and improved vitality and coping. Many meditative practices include a spiritual component, and some are deeply spiritual.
Psychedelic therapies are used to “produce a nonordinary state of consciousness for religious or spiritual purposes.”25 These therapies can also be used for psychological effects. Therapies are typically of three origins:
- Ethnobotanical substances naturally produced by organisms, such as psilocybin found in hundreds of varieties of mushrooms
- Synthesized substances such as MDMA (ecstasy)
- Non-drug approaches to induced non-ordinary states of consciousness: music-evoked visual imagery, holotropic breathwork, MARI (Mandala Assessment Research Instrument) and hypnosis are examples.
Summaries of these therapies are planned for our therapies database.
- Lower anxiety level, perception of muscle tension, and sensation of well-being, and improved peripheral oxyhemoglobin saturation among cardiovascular inpatients receiving Spiritist "passe" compared to sham and no intervention in a small RCT26
Other Spiritual Healing Approaches
Other approaches include psychic healing, laying on of hands and incantations. A 2014 investigation in Germany of spiritual healing included these other approaches as well as prayer. The study involved interviews of both clients and healers about expectations and beliefs, methods and perceived outcomes of spiritual healing. Clients and healers perceived “a symptomatic relief of medical complaints as well as positively experienced body sensations, positive emotions and general well-being.”27
- Comparable benefits on well-being of laying on of hands among people with advanced cancer whether from a healer or an actor mimicking the healer in a small RCT28
Spiritual and religious practices can be appropriate adjuncts to conventional and other complementary therapies. However, we at BCCT do not recommend relying solely on spiritual approaches in addressing cancer unless you are fully aware of the risks or have consciously chosen not to participate in active treatment.
Note: BCCT has not conducted an independent review of spiritual therapies research. This summary draws from the National Cancer Institute and other sources as noted.
- Brown-Saltzman K. Replenishing the spirit by meditative prayer and guided imagery.
- Seminars in Oncology Nursing. 1997 Nov;13(4):255-9.
- Prevention: Could Shamanic healing be the answer you've been looking for?
- Puchalski CM, Dorff RE, Hendi IY. Spirituality, religion, and healing in palliative care. Clinics in Geriatric Medicine. 2004 Nov;20(4):689-714, vi-vii.
- Daniel Plan: Faith
- Schlosser Z. A Look at Meditation in Christian Traditions. Sonima.
- Simoes M. Altered states of consciousness and psychotherapy a cross-cultural perspective. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies. 2002;21(1):145-152.
- Association for Music and Imagery: Frequently Asked Questions
- GIM Trainings: The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM)
- MARI®–Mandala Assessment Research Instrument: What Is MARI®?
- Transpersonal Training: About Holotropic Breathwork
- Wayne Jonas: How Can Health Care Serve Spiritual and Social Needs?
- Donald I. Abrams, MD, and Andrew T. Weil, MD: Integrative Oncology, 2nd Edition
- Neil McKinney, BSc, ND: Naturopathic Oncology, 3rd Edition
- Jeanne Achterberg: Imagery in Healing: Shamanism and Modern Medicine
- Jeanne Achterberg: Jeanne Achterberg (1942-2012): Imagery in Healing -- Part One Complete: Thinking Allowed