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Can spirituality save your life?
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This week sees the publication of my book, Reconstruction: How to rebuild your body, mind and life after a breast cancer diagnosis, so I’m sharing an extract today.
Part of the book is dedicated to future-proofing your body, and I investigate all the things you might imagine - nutrition, exercise, alcohol, sleep, stress and supporting your immunity. But today I’m sharing the part about spirituality, because it was one of the most surprising elements for me.
Enjoy this extract (and there’s still time for to you to preorder the book and receive it on publication day!). Let me know what you think…
I was raised in a home with no religious faith, went to a secular school, and have never believed in any kind of god. It was never something that bothered me. In fact, I was kind of proud to be a rational person who put their trust in science, not in some higher power. But over the years, I’ve increasingly started to wish that I did.
It’s often reported that people who have a structured faith are happier, healthier and live longer. And I’ve always assumed that this is down to the things that usually come as part of the package of having religious beliefs: gratitude, charity, forgiveness and a sense of community. There is also research to show the benefits of the meditative contemplation of prayer, and even singing as part of a group. Singing stimulates your vagus nerve, which interacts with your heart, lungs and digestive tract, relaxing your breathing, heart rate and gut. It’s a powerful stress-buster that does wonders for your immune system.
During Dan Buettner’s pioneering work into the Blue Zones, parts of the world in which people live healthier lives for longer, he whittled down their longevity to nine factors. Among the things you might expect, such as eating well (lots of veg, fibre, polyphenols, you know the drill by now), moving their bodies, having a good sense of community… all but five of the 263 centenarians his team interviewed belonged to some kind of faith-based community. Denomination didn’t seem to matter. Whatever your religion, it seems that attending faith-based services four times a month will add between four and 14 years on to your life expectancy.
Kelly Turner found a similar thing when researching her book, Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds. You might have heard stories of people given a terminal cancer diagnosis who then miraculously become cancer-free, often with minimal conventional interventions. She tracked down as many of these medical anomalies as she could and asked them what they did: what changes they made, what they thought made their cancers spontaneously shrink. As a researcher and PhD doctor, she is the first to caveat their stories with the fact that they’re anecdotal and there is little clinical evidence behind their astonishing recoveries. But these people have been dismissed by medical studies because they don’t fit in with what is supposed to happen when you have stage four cancer. She reasons that breakthroughs have been made in the past after studying anomalies, so it’s worth investigating.
Perhaps predictably, perhaps reassuringly, lots of what these people did is what we have already covered here: having good social connections, taking control of your health and eating the rainbow. But one of the key findings is that most of the people with spontaneous remission had a deep spiritual connection.
So is being an atheist bad for my health? Actually, the word atheist suggests a level of certainty that there is no higher power out there and who can actually know that for sure? I have had the occasional experience when I thought maybe there is, or might be, something bigger than us.
Shortly after my cancer treatment finished, I was sent to review a luxury medical spa called Lanserhof in Germany for a newspaper feature (I know, it’s a tough job). Lanserhof’s ethos is all about helping you ‘live better for longer’, and I arrived there with my spirit broken. My fear of recurrence was so all-encompassing that I was having phantom symptoms, including back and neck pain, every day. A brilliantly brisk and efficient doctor excavated my fears with direct questions about my experience of cancer treatment, which left me an emotional wreck in her pristine white clinic. She told me I needed to have my energy healed, got me to lie on the treatment table and then performed what felt like something of an exorcism. She lit what she called ‘fire sticks’ and waved them around as I felt warm vibrations flowing through me. Then it honestly felt as though my mind floated up out of my body. Afterwards I felt so much better, lighter, cleansed. I thanked her and she replied, ‘It wasn’t me,’ gesturing to the sky. Having been fully on board with the process moments earlier, her allusion to God suddenly made me doubt it.
So, yes, now I do kind of wish I had a religious faith. If you have one, albeit lapsed, then I would say that having cancer is certainly the time to lean into it, if that feels comfortable for you. I understand that some people have had negative, or even traumatic, experiences as a result of acts of oppression or abuses of power in the name of religion. I wouldn’t recommend anyone return to a faith that has not served them well in the past. But if you’ve let elements of the faith into which you were born slide over the years, then this could be a good time to resurrect them, as the benefits are well documented.
If, like me, you don’t have a religious faith, there are ways in which it’s possible to capture some of the magic of belief in a higher power. I used to be more cynical about such things but, as time goes on, I think I am starting to believe in the concept of energy, and that we’re all connected.
One way to incorporate the benefits of organised religion into your life is by fostering a sense of community. Connection with other people is one of the best things you can do for your health, because our nervous system is constantly searching for assurance that we’re safe, and that so often comes through conversation. Like food and shelter, a sense of belonging is a basic human need. And, despite how loving and supportive your family or partner might be, one person cannot fulfil all of your emotional needs, so it’s important to make an effort to maintain your social circle.
People often believe that friendships and strong relationships come naturally. Films and television shows portray large, warm, supportive friendship groups, which seem to form organically without anyone working on it. In reality of course, if you don’t consciously decide to make an effort to check in with your friends when they’re going through a tough time, or occasionally be the one to arrange the catch-up dinners, then you’ll find your social circle starts to shrink pretty quickly.
Looser social connections are also surprisingly important; it’s a case of chatting to the person that makes your coffee as you’re dashing for the train, or having a chat with the postman about the weather. This is something that we often take for granted, but we lost many of these opportunities during the Covid pandemic. Unplanned connections are so vital. Be a person that other people want to be around. Learn to affirm and appreciate other people. And be aware that how you think and feel rubs off on others. This is why some people create a sense of anxiety, just by being around them.
As social creatures, the energy exchange that occurs during human interaction nourishes us and has numerous health benefits, including immune system support. Loneliness has been shown to be as bad for your health as smoking. The statistics about that should be a wake-up call for anyone who still believes that emotional and physical wellbeing are not intrinsically connected. In his book, When the Body Says No, Gabor Maté explains that he doesn’t even like the term ‘connected’ as that implies two separate entities, and they are one.
Have a think about the traditions and practices you can fit into your life, inspired by religious faiths.
RITUALS FOR THE NON-RELIGIOUS
Gratitude Making lists of things for which you are grateful is one of the best-known and often-quoted ways to feel happier.
Song Studies have shown that singing is an effective mood-booster and stress-reliever, even if carried out alone. Do it as part of a group to reap the further benefits of connection and community. Perhaps join a choir or attend more live music events.
Prayer Could your version of praying take the form of meditation, a breathing practice, yoga, or simply taking time to focus on nothing but stroking your cat?
Charity If you can, donate to a local food bank, or consider running 10k to raise money for a good cause. Check out the resources section for charities who are providing vital support for people with cancer.
Ritual You don’t have to burn sage during the full moon (although you can if you want to!). A simple ritual could be journaling or just lighting a candle while you have a bath.
Don’t worry that you’re not ‘doing it right’, or fear that you’re being glib about actual religion. It’s about what feels right for you, and what gives you that greater sense of meaning. You could even take something that you already do and enjoy, and find a way to focus purely on it, really appreciating the headspace that it provides. In the spirit of this, a friend once told me that ‘running is my church’. Find your own way, with your own rituals, in your own tradition.
This week I’m…
Sharing my publication day with several brilliant women. Seems like there’s something magic about 25 May ✨
Annie Ridout’s excellent new book, Raise Your SQ: Transform Your Life with Spiritual Intelligence, is a fitting companion read for Reconstruction if the above extract piqued your interest in spirituality
‘What’s Wrong With Me?’: 101 Things Midlife Women Need to Know by Lorraine Candy covers everything from sex and career reinvention to brain fog, burnout and menopause. A must-read for women in their third quarter
Just Getting Started: Lessons in life, love and menopause by Lisa Snowdon is a galvanising reframing of this stage of life as a new beginning, rather than an end
Hack Your Hormones: Effortless weight loss. Better focus. Deeper sleep. More energy is Davinia Taylor’s smart, relatable guide to lifestyle tweaks that change your life
How to Feel Better: 4 Steps to Self-Coach Your Way to a Happier More Authentic You by super coach Ruth Kudzi is a great kick-start if you’re feeling stuck
And finally… Comfort and Joy: Irresistible Pleasures from a Vegetarian Kitchen by Ravinder Bhogal is as beautiful as it is delicious