A cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment can have a profound emotional and spiritual impact on those touched by the disease. For many patients and their caregivers, turning to prayer can help ease the burden, helping them better cope with the challenges they face.
According to a National Cancer Institute summary of research related to the role of spirituality in cancer care, “Both patients and family caregivers commonly rely on spirituality and religion to help them deal with serious physical illnesses, expressing desire to have specific spiritual and religious needs and concerns acknowledged or addressed by medical staff.”¹ Prayer, specifically, plays a vital role as a complementary modality used by many patients and caregivers to support overall well-being.²
A Source of Guidance and Support
When Linda Kohliem was diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer in 2011, she was shocked by the less-than-optimistic prognosis she received. Though she was devastated by the news, as a mother of five, grandmother of 17 and great-grandmother of three, Linda knew she had so much to live for. A devout Christian, Linda turned to a higher power for guidance.
“When I was first diagnosed, my doctor told me I’d be lucky to live a few more years. I didn’t know what to do,” she recalls. “So I turned to prayer. The more I studied the Word and prayed, the more the weeds of despair that had been growing in my heart since the diagnosis were plucked away. I relied on my faith. I asked God to lead me to the right place for my healing.”
For Linda that place was Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Zion, Illinois, where she would undergo chemotherapy to aggressively treat the cancer. The whole-person care model at CTCA® also provided integrative therapies, including nutrition therapy, naturopathic medicine and, perhaps most important to Linda, spiritual support, which she says has been “invaluable.”
“Praying really led me to the place of healing and hope,” she says. “Prayer has been the answer for me. I have found a place where I am nourished spiritually, and that, together with the chemotherapy and integrative therapies, has helped me in this fight against cancer. Prayer, to me, is essential.”
Pastoral Care Plays a Role
During her very first visit to CTCA, Linda says, she was elated to find out that a chaplain, Pastor Tammy James, would be part of her care team. “It was one of the best things that could have ever happened,” Linda says. “She has been there with me through the most difficult times while I’ve been fighting cancer. She was able to share her stories with me, pray with me and encourage me. She helped me to keep the faith and to continue to communicate with God.”
This past spring Linda called on James to help her make a decision about undergoing an aggressive procedure called hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC), in which surgeons remove visible tumors in the abdominal area and then flood the cavity with a heated, high-dose chemotherapy solution to target any remaining cancer cells.
“I was really reluctant to do the surgery at first,” Linda explains. “I met with Pastor Tammy and I asked her to pray with me before I made the decision. After praying with her, I received peace in my decision. The morning of the surgery, she came into my room and prayed with me again. That spoke volumes to me. I felt she knew the importance of my seeing her face and hearing her prayer. It brought peace and comfort within as I went into surgery.”
James, a two-time cancer survivor herself, says that prayer is just one of the many ways she and the other members of the Pastoral Care Team at CTCA are able to provide support and guidance for patients and their caregivers during their cancer journey. In addition to chaplains’ praying with patients in person, CTCA in Zion offers a dedicated prayer hotline to which anyone can call in, listen to a prayer (which is changed weekly) and then leave a message with a prayer request or for a callback from a chaplain. The Pastoral Care Team gathers each morning in the hospital’s chapel and includes the hotline requests in their morning prayers.
James also keeps a prayer journal—something she encourages patients to do, as well. She says that the entries need not have any certain length or format; even a sentence per day recording what you are praying for or grateful for is a good place to start.
The practice of journaling can provide valuable perspective and a vehicle for spiritual growth, James says, which has been clear in her own experience. “It’s interesting to go back and look at the things I asked God for in 2006, when I was first diagnosed. I had two little girls, and one of my prayers was to let me see them graduate from high school. And you know what? I have two college students now. So now I can go back and offer praise to Him for answering my prayers.”
James explains to patients that keeping a prayer journal is an opportunity not only to talk to God but also to better understand the path they are walking. “I explain to them that their destination is already determined; this is all about the journey. Journaling—even if it is just one sentence a day—can help you understand the journey. You will be able to look back years from now and see the bigger picture, the good that came out of it and how God helped you through the journey.”
Many patients feel a loss of control during their battle with cancer. Pastor Tracy Schumpert, a chaplain at CTCA in Tulsa, Oklahoma, says that prayer is a great opportunity for patients and caregivers to “plug in” to their relationship with God and regain a sense of empowerment.
“When they begin to pray, they really begin to see God and God’s strength more than ever before,” she says. “When they begin to depend on God to get them through it, prayer is an integral part of building that relationship, gaining that strength, finding that support. Prayer is a very powerful tool for the journey. It strengthens our patients and caregivers to walk this road with the guidance of God.”
A recent initiative by the Pastoral Care Team at CTCA in Tulsa provides patients and caregivers with resources—in the form of prayer and scripture booklets tailored to those facing cancer treatment—to help them find support and empowerment through prayer. “We wanted to give them something they could hold on to that would help them through their time with us,” explains Schumpert. “If we can’t physically be there with them all the time, the prayer booklets can. It’s our hope that they are able to provide support and encouragement.”
In addition, Schumpert says, the Pastoral Care Team prays for patients and their caregivers daily, and many regularly attend the daily prayer time and twice-weekly worship service held at the hospital. She says that patients often call on the chaplains to join them in prayer. “We pray with our patients constantly: before they go in to surgery, while they are in inpatient care, in the waiting room—whenever there is a need, we will pray with them. I think it really is something the patients appreciate.”
Perhaps one of the times a patient feels most vulnerable is before going in to surgery. Schumpert and her team are ready to help those patients find the strength and the courage to undergo the procedure.
“They are putting their whole trust in the doctors and the nurses. That is a very vulnerable moment. Through the power of prayer, I’ve seen where it has helped them through that moment, to find the strength to overcome the fear,” Schumpert says.
Cathie Hogate, who underwent treatment for breast cancer at CTCA in Tulsa, says that the genuine concern from the loving and caring Pastoral Care staff, as well as their hugs and prayers, made her treatment more comfortable and her journey with cancer bearable.
“I remember one time in particular: I was going in to have a test done, where they check your heart, and I was really anxious about it,” Cathie recalls. “Before I got on the exam table, the technician looked me in the eyes and asked if he could pray with me. He could see that I was very nervous. I said, ‘most definitely,’ and let me tell you, that was the most anointed prayer. Everything he said stuck in my mind and filled my spirit. It gave me peace. In that moment I was able to remember that the power was coming from God to help the technician do his job and help me get better.”
Cathie says that she had considerable time to reflect and pray during what she calls her “season of healing.” She found solace in the scriptures of the Bible, especially Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
“That verse was my staying power all throughout those dark days,” Cathie says. “When I prayed, I received such encouragement. How awesome to hear hope for things to come and to feel loved by God and by those caring for you.” Having come through her own dark days, Cathie is committed to helping others. “Now that those days are over, I have the desire to pass on the power of faith to others through a smile, a hug, a scripture, a meal together—to communicate to other cancer fighters that you are never alone, that there is hope and you can have faith for the future.”
Nurturing Faith through Prayer
For many patients and caregivers, the power of prayer is an important source of support. Whether it is a silent meditation asking for guidance in making decisions about care, praying aloud with a caregiver or asking for a safe and successful treatment or procedure, calling on a higher power can provide solace, comfort and a sense of peace. By nurturing faith through prayer, many patients and caregivers have found that they are better equipped to cope with the spiritual and emotional challenges associated with cancer.
No case is typical. You should not expect to experience these results.