“Blog Back” is our monthly column that featuring thoughts and stories from the Living Beyond Breast Cancer staff. This month’s columnist is Ashley Burczak, MDiv, LBBC’s volunteer coordinator. In this blog post, Ashley discusses spirituality, including how it is different, yet not mutually exclusive from religion, what it has the potential to do and the kind of spiritual questions you may ask yourself during your breast cancer journey.
When people hear the word “spirituality,” they often think of religion, but spirituality is really a much broader term. It refers to anything that you feel gives your life meaning, and even to the questions you are asking about meaning—questions like “what is important to me?” and “am I living my life the way I want to?” I believe that everyone has some way of making meaning in life, and that means that everyone has spirituality, even if they identify as completely nonreligious.
Many people, when initially asked whether a breast cancer diagnosis brought up any spiritual questions for them, will say that it didn’t. They may answer this way because they don’t consider themselves religious and don’t think that they could have a spiritual life without a religious faith or belief in supernatural phenomena, or because they are very religious, and think of “spiritual questions” as indicating doubt in their faith—something they try hard to avoid.
In truth, I haven’t spoken to many people with a cancer diagnosis who haven’t had some kind of spiritual issue come up in the course of diagnosis and treatment. A diagnosis of a life-threatening illness brings up the reality of death, and facing death has a way of making us reevaluate life, whether we have strong faith or no faith at all.
The most common spiritual questions that seem to come up fall into three categories:
1) Existential Questions
What is the purpose of life? Why is there suffering? What happens when we die? Is there a God?
2) Questions of Meaning
What should I do with my life? How should I spend my time? Am I in the right career? Am I in the right marriage? Is my life in line with my values? I used to think my life would have meaning because I could do x, y and z, but now I can’t do those things… How do I make life meaningful now?
3) Religious Questions
Do I still feel connected to my religious community and its leadership? Do I still believe what they teach?
Questions like this have the potential to change us in deep ways that we can’t anticipate, and sometimes we shy away from them out of fear of that unknown. Others around us might also resist when we bring up these issues, because they aren’t ready to face these questions themselves.
I feel that it is important for those affected by breast cancer to know that spiritual issues are a normal and natural response to an experience of life-threatening illness. The experience of trauma naturally changes us, and resisting that change tends to make it more painful. It can be immensely freeing to allow yourself to explore these questions and the emotions that surround them. Finding others who can support you in that change is also essential, and support groups or professionals like psychotherapists, chaplains, and spiritual directors can be a great help when friends and family aren’t able to hold the issues you are struggling with.