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. "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, published in an advance issue of PsychoOncology.
Researchers looked at message transcripts from 97 breast cancer patients from Wisconsin and Michigan. The group participated in an online support group that was part of with the Comprehensive Health Enhancement Support System (CHESS) "Living with Breast Cancer" program, a computer-based health education and support system.
Surveys were given before group access, then again four months later. Administrators also analyzed text messages within the computer-mediated support groups 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.
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