Health Team

Study: Religious belief plays role in treatment of terminally cancer patients

Posted March 17, 2009

Many patients with advanced cancer turn to their religious beliefs to cope.

“It’s relying on your faith to help you deal with your terminal illness,” said Holly Prigerson, of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Crosses sit atop a church. Study examines religion and terminally ill patients

To better understand the effects religion might have on these patients' medical care, researchers studied the treatment that 345 patients with advanced cancer received until their deaths. Attention was paid to how religion may predict subsequent care.

“We wanted to get a reflection of how the normal ways people use their faith to cope would influence their treatment decisions,” Dr. Andrea Phelps, of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

The study, which is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found patients with a high level of religious coping were about three times as likely to receive mechanical ventilation and intensive life-prolonging care during their last week of life as were   patients with little or no religious coping.

A majority of patients said they were of a Christian faith.

The findings may give clinicians greater insight into their terminally ill patients, researchers say.

“We need to understand that our patients are relying on their faiths to understand their illness and to make decisions … difficult decisions about care at the end of life,” Phelps said.


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  • Lightfoot3 Mar 19, 2009

    “Many patients with advanced cancer turn to their religious beliefs to cope.”

    My dad did. A few weeks before his death, I stood there in a hospital room as a member from the church prayed for healing. My dad believed in it. Had been believing it all his life. The day before his death he still believed it. He knew where he was going. Even stated it. And as he slipped away (I was the only family member there at the time), it gave me some comfort that he was at peace.

    I know it helps people, like a placebo effect. Even though I know all the gods are made up, and prayers don’t have any real effect beyond positive thinking, I understand that to some people, this is what keeps them going, gives them hope, and helps them deal with the situation.

  • NC Reader Mar 19, 2009

    Actually, the idea that Jesus is taking someone or that it's the person's time to die only represents the beliefs of some Christians. Yes, with those people, it seems contradictory that they would accept life-prolonging care. However, other Christians have much more of this attitude: God doesn't direct every event or determine who's going to die when. Bad things happen. Faith in God and God's love give us support to get through those bad times. Perhaps those people are more willing to get life-prolonging care because they don't worry about the suffering as much, believing that with God's help they can get through it -- that the suffering they will experience on earth will pale in comparison to life in Heaven.

    This is, of course, just a theory to attempt to explain why religious people may be more likely to try to prolong life. It is interesting to speculate.

  • JustOneGodLessThanU Mar 18, 2009

    Why do religious patients, the majority who were Christian, second guess Jesus' plan to "take" relying on "life-prolonging care"? If it's so great "up there", why not embrace or even expedite death? Because, it's probably as Mark Twain said, "Faith is believin' in what you know ain't true."