Thursday, April 1, 2010

Finding Meaning & Purpose

A recent analysis of two studies conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Connecticut attempted to assess spiritual well-being in cancer patients and survivors on the basis of two dimensions: meaning/peace, which reflects one’s purpose in life, and faith, which was defined as a perceived comfort derived from a connection to something larger than one’s self and was correlated with existing measures of religiosity. Annette Stanton, PhD, one of the authors of the analysis, which is scheduled for publication in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, says the findings were different for those who indicated they had meaning and peace compared with those who relied on faith. “We found that people who had a sense of meaning and purpose in life had a decrease in depressive symptoms and intrusive thoughts about cancer, as well as an increase in vitality over the next year. The cancer was less pressing. They had something else to go back to.” Stanton says the results did not indicate that faith was a bad thing, but that it contributes differently. “People who defined themselves as high on the faith scale perceived more growth from their cancer experience,” Stanton says. “Many faiths believe that there is a growth through suffering. Those high on faith see it as a time to grow.”
With a focus on living better and longer, complementary practices such as yoga, deep relaxation, meditation, sandtray, and both group and individual therapy sessions can raise the sense of hope and meaning. According to Michael Lerner, PhD, “Facing a life-threatening cancer raises questions of ultimate meaning. For some the frame is secular, for others religious or spiritual. The frame matters less than the opportunity to find a safe place to go inward and to see what is in your heart—what truly matters to you now. Sharing those deep heart questions with others in the same boat ends loneliness. It builds community and strengthens meaning for everyone, regardless of the frame we use. And finding meaning in the face of our greatest trials is at the heart of it all.”
What does all this mean for cancer patients and survivors trying to make spiritual sense of cancer? And what about those whose lives are filled with meaning and purpose but not a faith tradition? Having a serious illness can affect your spiritual outlook, regardless of whether you feel connected to traditional religious beliefs. After treatment, you and your loved ones may struggle to understand why cancer has entered your lives. You may wonder why you had to endure such a trial in your life. Cancer survivors often report that they look at their faith or spirituality in a new way. For some, their faith may get stronger or seem more vital. Others may question their faith and wonder about the meaning of life or their purpose in it. Many say they have a new focus on the present and try to live each day to the fullest.

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