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Cancer Center Chaplain Defines Spirituality


By Darcy De Leon

A cancer diagnosis often prompts many people to search for spirituality, but what is it, exactly?

Many people believe that spirituality and religion are one and the same. Spirituality doesn’t necessarily require going to church or even believing in a specific deity.

Spirituality helps people experience deeper meaning

"The definition of spirituality that I think is most helpful is: 'Spirituality is the human capacity to experience the transcendent dimensions of life,' " says David Jenkins, director of MD Anderson's Department of Chaplaincy. "A transcendent dimension of life is anything that is immaterial, and therefore cannot be scientifically observed and measured but, nevertheless, is experienced as real. Love is a good example."

Being open to spirituality might include:

  • Developing an interest in the deeper meaning of life
  • Establishing meaningful:
    • Relationships
    • Spiritual practices:
      • Prayer
      • Meditation
      • Worship
      • Service

It's important that each person discover what gives him or her purpose and have a willingness to take risks for the sake of personal growth and spiritual development, Jenkins says.

"The experience of illness, in this case cancer, places us in the uncomfortable position of knowing at the deepest level that we are finite beings," he adds. "This is often the occasion for human beings to respond in faith, hope and love, as the primary ways through which we transcend suffering, and find redemptive purpose and meaning."

This is not easy for any human being. It can make patients and caregivers realize that they are not as well prepared to face illness and suffering as they think.

"The result, then, can be a dramatic reassessment of life, and reaffirmation of those areas of life that are most important and vital sources to our experience of wellness," Jenkins says.

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center