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Home  /  Integrative Cancer Care  /  Spirit  /  Prayer and Cancer

Prayer and Cancer

By Jeannine Walston


When dealing with cancer and other challenges, people pray for improved health, to express gratitude, make other requests for healing, more time, support, and communion with God. Prayer is not specific to cancer, and yet people affected by cancer may feel moved to engage prayer and a power they may perceive as larger than themselves. Cancer may also open people to their spirituality with other dimensions of prayer.

This information explores universal concepts of prayer and potential benefits of prayer for those dealing with illnesses such as cancer.

Please note that the use of “God” refers to your concept of the term for something larger than the individual self such as God, Goddess, the Universe, the Absolute, the Almighty, the Center, the Higher Power, the Infinite, Supreme Being, Source, Divine Intelligence, and/or whatever ways in which you define your “God.”

What is prayer?

Prayer is defined in many ways.

Some consider prayer to be a conversation comprised of specific requests and wishes directed at God. The communication may also be focused on adoration, celebration, and thanksgiving.

The act of prayer may include a letting go and surrendering to God using varied forms of expression whether conscious or unconscious.

Prayer can be communicated through practices an individual deems sacred—silent, spoken, or written conversation, writing, song, dance, storytelling, touch, meditation, mantras, breathing, silence and stillness, sleep, dreams, the unconscious mind, and more.

Some deem prayer to contain more being than doing.

“In its simplest form, prayer is an attitude of the heart—a matter of being, not doing. Prayer is the desire to contact the Absolute, however it may be conceived. When we experience the need to enact this connection, we are praying, whether or not we use words.”

-Larry Dossey, MD, Prayer is Good Medicine

“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul.”

-Gandhi

“There is nothing in all creation so like God as stillness.”

-Meister Eckhart

Prayer is communion with the universal force much larger than us—God.

People pray for themselves as well as others. Prayer can be done for another person or group in the flesh or at a distance.

Some people develop a prayerfulness in their daily lives that Dr. Dossey defines as “an attitude, a state of mind in which we feel a sacred connection with the Absolute.”

“When we ask the Absolute how to pray, we go inside, because if the Almighty is omnipresent, she also dwells within.”
-Larry Dossey, MD, Prayer is Good Medicine

Pray and prayerfulness can also help move people to action.

“More often, the understanding of one’s task unfolds gradually from the sense of reverence, sacredness, and prayerfulness that starts to permeate our life as a whole, not from a highly charged moment during a specific prayer.”
-Larry Dossey, MD, Prayer is Good Medicine

There is no right or wrong way to pray.

“Knowing how to pray requires knowing who we are.”

-Larry Dossey, MD, Prayer is Good Medicine

What are some perspectives about the potential benefits of prayer?

Prayer provides a restorative connection with God.

“Prayer can heal our isolation, strengthen our ability to keep on keeping on, and nourish our spirit. When we pray, we tap into a divine mystery and source, call upon a relationship with something greater than ourselves.”

-Jean Shinoda Bolen, MD, Close to the Bone

Prayer helps people reclaim their soul.

“In prayer, the ego is in relationship to the Self, to the archetype of meaning within us, as well as to the sacred that surrounds us. It is this encounter and communion that nourishes and replenishes the soul.”

-Jean Shinoda Bolen, MD, Close to the Bone

Repeated prayers, spoken silently or aloud, help to shift thought patterns and offer people expansion into something larger than themselves.

“There is power and solace in prayers that have been said millions of times. Every religion has some prayers that are recited over and over again. These prayers seem to tap into collective human experience, into the morphic field of our species, into the collective unconscious by which we are influenced and to which we contribute. When we say these prayers, we draw from this power. There is usually a rhythm to such prayers, and their words have the power of affirmations or mantras; in their repetition and cadence, they shift consciousness, working themselves into the subconscious or unconscious, becoming what we believe.”
-Jean Shinoda Bolen, MD, Close to the Bone

What are the potential benefits of prayer according to research studies?

In Prayer is Good Medicine, Larry Dossey, MD refers to research indicating that prayer is 80 percent beneficial. He alludes to studies suggesting that prayer helps prevent illness, mental and physical, and cope with illness much more effectively. Different religious traditions also do equally well in studies. Other studies since Dossey’s book offer additional conflicting views on the benefits of prayer. Like any other intervention, the effects of prayer can be mixed. All of the benefits of the experience of prayer may or may not be captured in research studies.

How does this apply specifically to those affected by cancer? Studies indicate that prayer can help people with cancer better adjust and cope with their disease. Other research indicates the psychological benefits of prayer in people with cancer, including reduction of stress and anxiety, promotion of a more positive outlook, and the strengthening of the will to live.

Do certain emotional states and intentions make prayer more effective?

Dr. Dossey explains that studies reveal the qualities of love, empathy, caring, and compassion in the person praying are extremely important for the benefits of prayer to occur.

Research in prayer like states of consciousness also suggest that a positive belief in the person praying strengthens the effect of the prayer. Dr. Dossey distinguishes belief as things that are seen and can be demonstrated versus faith as what is hoped for without it being seen.

Other research shows that releasing any preferred outcomes makes prayer more effective.

“Other studies suggest that a particular kind of letting go is also important—a letting go of preferred outcomes. In these experiments, when people use a ‘Thy will be done’ approach, in which one does not dictate terms but asks only for the greatest or highest good, prayer often seems more effective.”

-Larry Dossey, MD, Prayer is Good Medicine

This type of prayer requires faith that the best outcome will occur.

“One of the best reasons to rely on an open-ended, nondirected prayer is that our knowledge is limited. Even when we think we are praying for what’s best, we may be misguided.”
-Larry Dossey, MD, Prayer is Good Medicine

What are the potential benefits of distance prayer?

Dr. Dossey explains that studies strongly suggest a therapeutic effect of distant prayer and even when the recipient of the prayer does not know they are being prayed for. Distance healing may or may not be prayer. Distant healing involves mental focus with the intention to improve well-being in another living being. Conflicting studies exist about the benefits of distance healing with some research showing therapeutic effects and others not demonstrating improvements.

For More Information

  • Close to the Bone: Life-Threatening Illness as a Soul Journey by Jean Shinoda Bolen, MD
  • Healing Words by Larry Dossey, MD
  • Prayer is Good Medicine by Larry Dossey, MD