cancer chemo
In this photo, patient receives chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer at the Antoine-Lacassagne Cancer Center in Nice on July 26, 2012. Reuters/Eric Gaillard

A new study has found that religious and spiritual beliefs can have significant impacts on the health outcomes of cancer patients, though the specifics vary depending on their beliefs. An analysis of three studies relating to how cancer patients’ physical and mental health was influenced by their beliefs was published Monday in the journal CANCER.

The first study analyzed patients’ physical health and found that patients who reported feeling greater levels of religiousness and spirituality also showed better health, greater ability to function in their daily lives, and fewer physical symptoms from the cancer and its treatment.

"These relationships were particularly strong in patients who experienced greater emotional aspects of religion and spirituality, including a sense of meaning and purpose in life as well as a connection to a source larger than oneself," lead author Heather Jim of the Moffitt Cancer Center in Florida, said in a press release.

She added that patients who showed stronger cognitive aspects of their beliefs, such as the ability to integrate their cancer into their belief systems, also showed better health. However, their physical health seemed to be related to their beliefs, and not to the behavioral aspects of their religion and spirituality, such as prayer or service attendance.

The second analysis focused on patients’ mental health, and here the researchers found that the emotional aspects of belief were more strongly correlated with better mental health than the behavioral or cognitive manifestations of religion or spirituality.

"Spiritual well- being was, unsurprisingly, associated with less anxiety, depression, or distress," the second study’s lead author John Salsman, who conducted the research at Northwestern University in Chicago, said. "Also, greater levels of spiritual distress and a sense of disconnectedness with God or a religious community was associated with greater psychological distress or poorer emotional well-being."

The third study looked at patients’ social health, or their ability to retain their relationships and social roles despite the illness. Overall belief was found to modestly increase well-being, a relationship that held true across all three dimensions being measured.

"When we took a closer look, we found that patients with stronger spiritual well-being, more benign images of God (such as perceptions of a benevolent rather than an angry or distant God), or stronger beliefs (such as convictions that a personal God can be called upon for assistance) reported better social health," lead author Allen Sherman of the University of Arkansas, said. "In contrast, those who struggled with their faith fared more poorly."

The researchers said that future studies should look at how the connection between religious or spiritual belief and health change over time, and whether support services could help foster aspects of their belief to improved patients' quality of life.

"In addition, some patients struggle with the religious or spiritual significance of their cancer, which is normal. How they resolve their struggle may impact their health, but more research is needed to better understand and support these patients," Jim said.