As a chaplain, one of the most gratifying components of my job has been working with people of different religions and spiritual beliefs.  When we are living with cancer, we tap into a wide variety of resources to help us cope and deal with the changes in our living.  One such resource for many is the practice of spirituality or religious beliefs.

I have found that spirituality and religion can be hard to tell apart, yet there are some pretty defined differences between the two. Religion is a specific set of organized beliefs and practices, usually shared by a community or group. Spirituality is more of an individual practice and has to do with living in the moment; having a sense of peace and purpose. Persons can be both religious and spiritual.  Some practice spirituality but may not be part of a religious community.

For many who are in high stress times of life, religious and spiritual practices are helpful in generating peace, purpose, hope, acceptance, and forgiveness. In my experience, those who are living with cancer face questions about meaning of life, purpose of suffering, and choices of how to live. I often hear, How do I live with this?  Where is God in the midst of my pain? I can no longer attend my faith community, and even if I could, when I don’t feel well and when I’m scared, I just withdraw.

All of these responses are VERY normal.

During this month of December, these feelings can be heightened.  December is a real paradox: it can be both a time of great joy AND a time of great stress. It can be a time for families to celebrate their history and love for each other AND it can be a time of sadness and loss. It can be a time of gathering in religious celebrations and feeling powerful spiritual connectedness AND it can be a time of doubt, confusion, and isolation.

For cancer patients, this is a paradox we live daily.  We can want to feel joy and be close to others AND we can also feel frightened, sad, and alone. We want to feel close to our faith and spirituality AND we can feel abandoned.

During this month, allow yourself the gift of acceptance of who you are…this day…this season…this year. Focus on this present day. Know that you can hold different feelings at the same time. You are the same person you were before your cancer diagnosis. You hold the same history and experiences. You are also in a time of viewing the world differently and perhaps re-examining your life. All is in this present time of your living.

Spirituality Exercise

I invite you to take a few moments of connecting deep within yourself.  Move into a comfortable position. Take a deep slow breath. Now exhale slowly.

  • Breathe in….breathe out.
  • Breathe in what is needed, breathe out what is not.
  • Breathe.   Allow yourself to accept  where you are this moment.
  • Breathe. Slow down your expectations of yourself…of how you choose to experience the holidays.
  • Breathe. Take on what is manageable and most important to you. 
  • Breathe.  Allow yourself to acknowledge the goodness you already have in your life. 
  • Breathe.  Give yourself a few minutes of quietly breathing in and breathing out gratitude for what you do have in your life (not for what you don’t have).

When you finish this brief exercise, I invite you to take with you this quote from Eckhart Tolle:   “Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance” 

May your days in December have a focus on the abundance that does exist in your life. It is there. Remember it.

Lucretia Hurley-Browning, MDiv, MS, is a guest writer whose recent background includes Chaplain of  Abramson Cancer Center at Pennsylvania Hospital and the Director of Juniper Tree Counseling Center. She is a therapist and ordained United Methodist Minister. Currently she is a writer by day, a reader by night, and is passionate about living life meaningfully with a good dose of fun.