Breast cancer patients who pray in online support groups can obtain mental health benefits, according to a new study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center of Excellence in Cancer Communications Research that was funded by the National Cancer Institute.
“We know that many cancer patients pray in online support groups to help them cope with their illness. This is the first study we are aware of that examines the psychological effects of this behavior,” says Bret Shaw, an associate scientist in UW-Madison’s College of Engineering and lead author of the study.
The analysis was conducted on message transcripts from 97 breast cancer patients participating in an online support group that was integrated with the Comprehensive Health Enhancement Support System (CHESS) “Living with Breast Cancer” program, a computer-based health education and support system. The patients were recruited from Wisconsin and Michigan.
Surveys were administered before group access, then again four months later. Text messages within the computer-mediated support groups were analyzed using a text analysis program, which measured the percentage of words that were suggestive of religious belief and practice (e.g., pray, worship, faith, holy, God). Writing a higher percentage of these religious words within the online support groups was associated with lower levels of negative emotions and higher levels of self-efficacy and functional well-being, even after controlling for patients’ pre-test levels of religious beliefs.
“From a psychological standpoint, there are a variety of reasons why cancer patients may benefit from prayer – whether on the Internet or elsewhere. In reviewing the messages, some of the most common ways study participants used religion to cope with their illness included putting trust in God about the course of their illness and consequently feeling less stressed, believing in an afterlife and therefore being less afraid of death, finding blessings in their lives and appraising their cancer experience in a more constructive religious light,” says Shaw.