Online Prayer Helps Cancer Patients

Prayer might not cure cancer, but it makes some cancer patients feel psychologically better, new research claims.

Transcripts of online support group sessions for 97 breast cancer patients were analyzed, and researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found an association between improved mental health and patients who used a higher percentage of words such as pray, worship, faith, holy, and God during those sessions.

(Interviews with the patients later on showed that those who use these words were engaging directly in prayer, not just sprinkling those words in their dialogues.)

The association held even when the researchers compared patients with similar levels of religious beliefs. The study did not select for patients of any particular religion, but participants expressed mainly Christian beliefs, although there were a few Native American and Hindu religious quotes in the transcripts.

All in the mind

Patients in the study filled out a survey before participating in the online support sessions and then another one four months later to assess psychological changes. A text analysis program run on the session transcripts revealed that those who used more of the words suggestive of religious beliefs and practices had higher levels of functional well-being, lower levels of negative emotions and felt more strongly that they had control over their situation (or were experiencing self-efficacy).  

Bret Shaw, lead author of the study, and his colleagues investigated only the psychological mechanism behind prayer and prayerful words, not issues of divine intervention or physical health, Shaw told LiveScience.

Many cancer patients pray in online support groups to help them cope with their illnesses, Shaw said.

“We think the mechanisms of effect were trusting in God's plan for their life, in believing in an afterlife (reduced negative emotions), self-directing religious coping or presuming that God gives one the skills and resources they need to face their challenges (self-efficacy) and focusing on what's going well in their lives as a gift from God rather than what's not going well (functional well-being),” Shaw said.

“From a psychological standpoint alone, I think that prayer talk may well provide some stress relief that other forms of talk may not. For instance, believing in an afterlife in heaven would presumably reduce one's fear of death to some degree, which is precisely what we found,” Shaw said. “Similarly, the idea of a divine power assisting one through an illness may well provide comfort and reduction of distress that one may not expect to find through other forms of talk or thought.”

Shaw said that he sees prayer and religious expression, in this study, as a coping mechanism that helps people put a more positive spin on their fate and illness, not as a placebo effect.

Healthy prayer

Some previous research has concluded that prayer has health benefits.

For instance, one study reported that people who regularly attend church have better lung function, regardless of whether they smoke or exercise. Another study stated that regular church-goers live longer—about 2 to 3 years longer than people who attend less frequently or not at all.

Although most doctors are willing to discuss religion with their patients, few of them recommend prayer or pray with their patients. And one large study recently concluded that prayer has no effect on the recovery of patients after heart bypass surgery. Instead, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher rate of complications, said Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School.

Shaw said it’s possible that the results of his study were influenced by the fact that all the study subjects were women.

“It’s well known in the literature on online support groups that women are more likely to participate in online support groups, and there is also evidence that they tend to be more expressive in their participation within these groups (which is not necessarily different than findings for face-to-face support groups either),” Shaw said.

It’s possible that religious talk in the sessions had some negative effects on patients, Shaw wrote in the study, published in the journal Psycho-Oncology. Previous research has found that some religious coping, such as a belief that one is being punished with illness by God, is associated with diminished mental health and quality of life.

Some participants in Shaw's study reported that they were so averse to the religious talk in the online sessions that they turned away from them.

Robin Lloyd

Robin Lloyd was a senior editor at and Live Science from 2007 to 2009. She holds a B.A. degree in sociology from Smith College and a Ph.D. and M.A. degree in sociology from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is currently a freelance science writer based in New York City and a contributing editor at Scientific American, as well as an adjunct professor at New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.