The power of prayer
A growing number of patients and doctors take their healing on faith.
Alan Newberry was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003. Describing his condition as stable, the 71-year-old retired school superintendent says he feels strong. He has had no conventional treatment, preferring natural supplements instead.
Newberry also feels that his health actually improved from the time of diagnosis, a situation he partly attributes to prayer. "Prayer has helped," Newberry said. "It's a combination of daily meditation and participating in the liturgy of the church. I'm a member of the Christ Church Cathedral. It's not just a solitary activity, but also a community activity."
Newberry believes that through prayer, "one connects to a greater energy in the universe.
"You can call that the Holy Spirit if you want, or apply whatever label you wish, but I think it opens the body to healing," he said in a phone interview from his Surrey home. "It has helped me mentally, spiritually, and physically."
Newberry said that prayer and meditation became part of his effort to deal with cancer when he was introduced to the Vancouver-based InspireHealth (www.inspirehealth.ca), a nonprofit society that provides a holistic approach to cancer care. Formerly known as the Centre for Integrated Healing, it combines nutrition, exercise, and emotional and spiritual support alongside conventional cancer treatment.
Dr. Hal Gunn, CEO and cofounder of InspireHealth, said that the centre is nondenominational.
"We just create a meditation circle," Gunn explained. "Each of the patients' names is read out to invoke a healing connection to that person. Some studies show that prayers are helpful even if we don't know we are being prayed for, which from a 20th-century perspective is challenging to understand."
Indeed, Gunn noted, three or four decades ago conventional medicine ignored the spiritual well-being of a patient. Now, he says, there's even a new field of medicine called psychoneuroimmunology based on the belief that there is no separation between body and mind.
According to Gunn, in 2005 the centre conducted "retrospective studies" on its clients. The results showed that cancer patients who adopted InspireHealth's integrated approach lived longer than the national average rate of cancer survival.
However, Gunn also pointed out that because the studies did not constitute a randomized controlled trial, one "can't conclude definitively that the centre's programs are helpful".
"But it certainly points in the direction that this idea of supporting mind, body, and spirit in health is important in improving survival," Gunn said.
The May 21 edition of the Medical Journal of Australia featured an article written by Marek Jantos, a psychologist and director of the Behavioural Medicine Institute in Adelaide, and Dr. Hosen Kiat, a University of New South Wales cancer expert. In their piece, entitled "Prayer As Medicine: How Much Have We Learned?" the authors noted that scientific research on the health benefits of prayer is "still in its infancy".
"To gain a clearer understanding”¦future studies need to identify the unique markers that differentiate prayer from other non-spiritual practices," the authors concluded, adding that "some aspects of prayer may not be transparent to scientific investigation and may go beyond the reach of science. In the clinical context, prayer should not be specifically prescribed or seen as a substitute for medical treatment, but should be recognised as an important resource for coping with pain and illness and improving health and general wellbeing."
Lyren Chiu is the president and executive director of the UBC–based Canadian Research Institute of Spirituality and Healing. A former assistant professor in the UBC school of nursing, Chiu said that studies suggest that prayer and meditation are associated with benefits for patients. When people hear that others are praying for them, they feel supported, she said. "When people pray”¦they feel peace," Chiu explained. "When they find peace, there's psychological and physical benefit. They feel good."