Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Cancer and faith

Author: Joyce Kirkpatrick

Medicine and faith have been linked in records of man’s efforts to heal others since the earliest annals of hospitals dated 400 B.C. The first documented facilities dedicated to healing physical ailments were the ancient temples of Egypt, Greece, and India, which were followed by hospital systems established throughout the Persian Empire. Patients came to these “places of hospitality” seeking spiritual healing and the latest medical procedures. Faith and medicine were inseparable.1,2,3

The role of faith

Many centuries later, patients still are seeking cures and compassion. Research confirms that the majority of patients use religion to help them cope with medical illness.

A study by Duke University Medical Center revealed that “nearly 90 percent [of patients] reported using religion to some degree to cope, and more than 40 percent indicated that it was the most important factor that kept them going.”4 Results of two national surveys published in 2010 show that “82 percent of respondents said they depend on God for help and guidance in making decisions.”5

In addition to studies that reveal the role of faith as an emotional support resource, research also suggests that faith may actually have an impact on physical wellness. A summary of several such studies published in the Southern Medical Journal in 2004 states that: “religious beliefs and activities have been associated with better immune function…; lower death rates from cancer…; less heart disease or better cardiac outcomes…; lower blood pressure…; lower cholesterol…; and better health behaviors (less cigarette smoking;… more exercise;…and better sleep).”4 In addition, the article reports that studies of mortality found that religious persons live significantly longer, citing that “the effect for regular religious attendance on longevity approximates that of not smoking cigarettes (especially in women), adding an additional seven years to the lifespan (14 years for blacks).”4

One patient's story

Patricia (Patty) Hoffman of Anchorage, Alaska, has always had strong faith. Raised in a Christian home where her mother served as a spiritual role model, Patty says her faith grounds and guides her. When she was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, Patty says, she felt compelled to seek treatment in a place that would support her faith.

She found that place at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Goodyear, Arizona, where patients’ spiritual needs are considered alongside physical and emotional wellness as part of a whole-person approach to cancer treatment. “I feel I was divinely led to CTCA,” she says. “I was looking for a holistic, state-of-the-art place with western medicine, alternative services, and spiritual support. CTCA provides it all, and there is a spiritual peace I feel with the people there. They all have the desire for healing.”

Patty’s sense of spiritual peace speaks to the commitment of CTCA to ensure that patients of all faiths have the support they need. Patients at each CTCA treatment center are offered pastoral care through staff chaplains; and through affiliations each CTCA hospital develops relationships with major faith organizations in the communities in which it is located. In fact, some CTCA facilities have incorporated spiritual support into their literal foundation through a unique blessing ceremony wherein patients and staff inscribe favorite scriptures and inspirational messages on areas of the new hospital’s floors.

Finding sanctuary

Patty’s road to a definitive diagnosis had many detours. She was sick for a couple of years before learning she had cancer. After several stressful events and a bout with food poisoning, she became exhausted. “From there things went downhill,” she says. “I lost my appetite and lost a lot of weight. My grandfather was a homeopath, and I was raised that way, so first I tried homeopathic medicine. For the first two years, it would work for a while; then it wouldn’t work. Finally, I had a colonoscopy and learned I had rectal cancer and a spot on my lung.” After the diagnosis Patty contacted CTCA, and she and her mother, Betty Allen, traveled to Arizona so that Patty could begin treatment in July 2011.

Her decision to seek treatment at CTCA felt right from the beginning, Patty says, and was confirmed when she and Betty met Reverend Nick Hill, BPM, chaplain, and Suzanne Leahy, MAR, chaplain and supervisor of pastoral care at CTCA in Goodyear. “They have been extremely helpful and supportive,” says Patty. “I have seen them reach out to many people, and both are so steadfast. Whenever you need a prayer, they will stop and pray with you, no matter where. He and Suzanne are there for any kind of support you need.”

Rev. Hill calls Patty and her mother “the dynamic duo” and says the pair regularly reached out to other patients and family members during their time at the hospital. “They organized get-togethers over meals and looked out for newcomers. They could recognize fear in their eyes and would go up and hold their hands and say, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ Patty is very realistic in her faith and in her treatment, and she puts a positive spin on everything.”

The role of spiritual counselors

Though Patty arrived at CTCA with a firm foundation of faith that has continued to guide and support her through her treatment and recovery, many patients face spiritual challenges and major questions related to faith in the wake of a cancer diagnosis. Patients may be anxious, afraid, and sometimes angry as these questions arise.

“I am asked two questions almost daily,” Rev. Hill says. “First, ‘What did I do wrong?’; second, ‘Why is God mad at me?’” His response? “I tell them, ‘No one deserves cancer, and God is not punishing you. He loves you, and He is going to help you through this.’” That answer, he says, provides welcome relief. “When they get that spiritual aspect answered, their anxiety seems to lighten and they calm down. Faith, along with peace of mind, aids in the healing process.”

Helping all patients find peace and support, no matter their faith, is the goal of CTCA pastoral care chaplains. “We sometimes get patients who have no beliefs,” says Rev. Hill. “We don’t try to change them; we just talk to them and let them express their feelings. We also get some who have superfaith. They believe that God is going to heal them and that is all they need.” In these cases, Rev. Hill says, he helps guide them to see a bigger picture where faith and medicine work together. “I ask them, ‘If you really don’t need medicine, then why are you here?’ God uses people, and He uses medicine in the healing process. We try to reach patients where they are in their belief. We just want to help everyone increase their faith and hope, and we will bring in whomever they want to visit with, no matter what their faith is.”

Faith journey

Though cancer can challenge faith, many patients ultimately find that their belief system is strengthened by the experience. Patty Hoffman is one such person. “Just enduring cancer, getting through the process, and learning new things has restored my faith in humanity,” she says. “I certainly wouldn’t have chosen this way for my life to go, but I wouldn’t change it for all the things I have learned. Sure, I have difficult moments, but I trust the process and feel really good about the care I’m getting and my future. I know my faith is what gets me through everything and, regardless of what happens, that I win.”

Patients like Patty exemplify the continued role that faith plays as another, equally important component of the healing process for many. And despite continued advances in technology and treatment, it’s likely that this age-old connection between cancer and faith will likely endure, providing a critical sense of peace and purpose for those facing physical challenges.


  1. Risse GB. Mending Bodies, Saving Souls: A History of Hospitals. New York: Oxford University Press; 1999.
  2. McGrew RE. Encyclopedia of Medical History. London: Macmillan; 1985.
  3. Elgood C. A Medical History of Persia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1951.
  4. Koenig HG. Religion, spirituality, and medicine: research findings and implications for clinical practice. Southern Medical Journal. 2004;97(12).
  5. Parker-Pope T. “Most Believe God Gets Involved,” New York Times, March 10, 2010, http://well.blogs.nytimes. com/2010/03/10/most-believe-god-gets-involved.