Cancer patients and spiritual experiences: Redefining the self through initiatory ordeals

Vonarx, N. (2015). Palliative & supportive care, 13(1), 27-40.



Objectives. When one explores the paths that sick people follow in search of meaning and a cure, one is quite likely to encounter religious knowledge and practices. Examining this facet and the spiritual experiences that arise therein leads us to the subject of identity, which systematically comes up as soon as we consider the impact of serious illness on people’s lives. We need to follow the identity-building process that occurs in the disease, ruptures, and redefinitions if we are to understand how religious practices and knowledge contribute to the process.

Methods. This article discusses these elements using data collected in a qualitative research study of 10 cancer patients, carried out in Québec. Drawing on the sociology of religions, particularly the contemporary transformation of the religious and the spiritual, we attempted to understand the patients’ spiritual experiences by focusing on the self-discovery that occurred through the initiatory ordeal of their illness.

Results. We observe that these resources are particularly helpful when the patients use them to turn inwards, to pay attention to themselves, to unite the mind and body, to connect with something greater than themselves, and to transform their values so as to develop a new psychosocial version of themselves.

Significance of results. Our analysis shows that there is a complementary relationship between religion and illness at the crossroad of the identity-building process. This relevance demands to be attentive to the initiatory process that leads to the self-discovery and a renewal of the relationship with the self.


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Link to article (Cambridge).