Shaken faith linked with depression in breast cancer patients

Shaken faith linked with depression in breast cancer patients

Women with breast cancer who feel either angry or abandoned by God are more depressed and exhibit worse overall mental health than those who maintain a more positive religious or spiritual outlook, according to a new study.
The study, conducted by Dr. Randy Hebert, medical director of Forbes Hospice, part of the West Penn Allegheny Health System, enrolled 198 women with early-stage (I or II) breast cancer and 86 women with later-stage (IV) breast cancer. Participants were recruited from various hospitals in western Pennsylvania, and were interviewed at the time of entry into the study, and eight to 12 months later.
Of the 198 participants in the study, titled “Positive and Negative Religious Coping and Well-Being in Women with Breast Cancer,” about 85 percent identified themselves as Christian, while about 5 percent were Jewish, Hebert said. About 5 percent said they were not affiliated with any specific religion.
The results of the study indicated that health care professionals who treat people with serious illnesses should “keep in mind that religion has a big part in coping with those illnesses,” Hebert said.
“If patients are feeling angry or abandoned by God, that depression should be treated, but clergy should also be brought in to help treat that,” he said.
Hebert noted that just as cardiologists are called in to treat heart issues, and pulmonologists are called in to treat lung problems, “religious and spiritual issues should be treated by the clergy.”
The idea of bringing in clergy to treat the spiritual distress of seriously ill patients is “fairly new to the medical literature,” Hebert said. “It’s never been something that’s been looked at.”
While negative spiritual feelings can impact mental health, the study did not show that such feelings had any effect on the patients’ physical well-being, noted Hebert, who is also vice chief of the Division of Hospice and Palliative Medicine at The Western Pennsylvania Hospital and The Western Pennsylvania Hospital — Forbes Regional Campus.
The study also found that, “Positive religious coping was not associated with any measures of well-being.”
“Clinicians often don’t broach the subject of religious and spiritual coping with their seriously ill patients, even though most want their physicians to be aware of their beliefs. Our study suggests that engaging patients about their religious or spiritual beliefs may be extremely beneficial, particularly when anger and disillusionment with one’s faith is present,” Hebert said.
Rabbi Eli Seidman, who has worked at Pittsburgh’s Sivitz Jewish Hospice and Palliative Care since 1996, said that he has witnessed first hand the positive effects of spiritual support on the critically ill.
“Of the many people that I see in hospice, the ones that have a strong faith also have a strong support system, both inside their families and within their congregations, and I think that’s important. They also have more outlets for stress. They can lessen their stress by means of prayer and faith in God,” Seidman said.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, was also authored by Bozena Zdaniuk, Ph.D., of the Center for Urban and Social Research at the University of Pittsburgh; Richard Schulz, Ph.D. of the Department of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh; and Michael Scheier, Ph.D., of the Department of Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University.

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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