Illustrating the magical elements commonly associated with prayer is a final scene in the Coen Brothers’ film, O Brother Where Art Thou? Everett, played by George Clooney, gets down on his knees and prays to God to save him and his three buddies from being hung by the movie’s villain.
The moment Everett finishes praying, a tidal wave crashes through the valley, knocking down everything in its path and freeing the four friends. The water doesn’t kill them; instead, just as they rise to its surface, a coffin, that had been meant for one of their dead bodies, springs to the surface so they can use it as a life raft.
Only in the movies—right? Not necessarily. Maybe the effects aren’t as dramatic, but researchers are investigating the healing powers of prayer. This research is especially relevant for cancer patients because they seem to be praying more than patients with other life-threatening illnesses, according to research by Dr. Jun Mao, assistant professor and director of integrative medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
Mao speculated during a recent interview that cancer patients are praying more because there are more unknowns about the causes and treatments for cancer. A non-smoker who exercises, eats right and is a good person may still get cancer.
So what are the actual effects of prayer? There is conclusive evidence that “prayer is of immense psychological benefit to patients with cancer,” said Dr. Harold Koenig via email.
Koenig co-authored The Handbook on Religion and Health, a comprehensive reference work on recent research in religion and health. He is also a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, where he is also director of its Center on Spirituality.
A specific psychological benefit of prayer is that patients feel they are not alone, said Rabbi Tsurah August, hospice rabbi for the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Greater Philadelphia. Certainly getting more people to visit a patient or participating in a support group helps, but the difference with prayer, said August — especially Jewish prayer — is that it connects patients to a long tradition and chain of people that dates back to Abraham and Sarah.
Prayer also brings a sense of holiness into people’s lives, said Rabbi Elisa Goldberg, director of JFCS Jewish community services. This holiness sustains people because they feel a part of something bigger than the concrete reality of their lives, she adds.
Novella Lyons is a breast cancer survivor and president and founder of Women of Faith and Hope, a non-religious organization that focuses on breast cancer issues for low-income African-Americans in Philadelphia.
Lyons said her prayers and sense that God was there holding her hand helped her get through every step when she had breast cancer —from doctor visits to surgery to successful recovery. She found the strength to keep going, plus helped her be assertive so that the doctors and nurses got all her information right. She does not believe her faith assured her recovery. But she does believe that faith helps her cope with every difficulty.
On a personal note, my sister June, an artist, also said that prayer helped her get through the scary year when she was treated successfully for both breast and uterine cancer. More than her own prayer, she said it meant a lot to know that other people were praying for her.
She’s not sure whether it was the power of their prayers, the loving intent that initiated their prayers, or a combination of both, but she does know the prayers, plus people’s many kind deeds, buoyed her spirit. Despite the multiple challenges she faced, she felt like she knew just what to do and that everything would work out.
August mentioned studies that have been done on the actual effects of intercessory prayers, although she adds that there was no conclusive evidence of the impact.
Dr. Larry Dossey, who has been described as a pioneer in studies on prayer, discusses how intercessory prayer can be explained scientifically in his book, Healing Words. He likens the effects of intercessory prayer to studies in telepathy, or the successful transmission of thoughts from one person to another, and cites telesomatic events, where emotional connections enable people to know that something is happening to their loved ones. For example, a mother may know that something bad is happening to her child even though the child is miles away.
Debra Kaplan, an integrative psychotherapist and senior faculty member at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., said because of prayer, and other spiritual practices, people tolerate cancer treatment better and experience fewer side effects. She said studies also suggest that people who pray live longer and are less likely to get sick.
If they do get sick, they are more likely to do better with the treatments given. However, researchers are unsure why this happens. It could be faith at work or a placebo effect, she added.
Countering this, Koenig said it is doubtful that prayer has much of an impact on a patient’s physical health or longevity. Prayer influences a patient’s quality of life, unless they’re simply praying to be healed. Then, “only disappointment will result in the majority of cases.”
None of the experts suggested that prayer replace conventional medicine. From the standpoint of Jewish tradition, Goldberg cited the Talmud, Tractate Nedarim, Folio 39b, which reveals that Rabbi Abba, son of Rabbi Hanina, is asked if someone visits a patient and prays for them, will it remove the illness?
Abba answers no, but that it lessens their pain by one-sixtieth. So then he is asked if 60 people came and prayed, then would it remove the illness? To this, Abba simply answers no.
Goldberg elaborated that this passage recognizes the power of prayer and its limitations.
Mao recommends that physicians encourage the religious affiliations or spiritual quests of their patients. Spirituality can provide patients with an incredible amount of relief, he notes. To patients, he recommends that they try alternative practices and therapies, but within the context of conventional medicine.
Goldberg said she believes that just as there are different personality types, there are different spiritual types. This explains people’s preferences for traditional, personal or communal prayers. “There’s not one way that is right or wrong or better than the other,” she said.
For a final thought on the topic, August told of how she had been working with a cancer patient whom she called M.F., to protect his privacy.
M.F. was in his 90s. After surviving six concentration camps, he became a concert pianist and great teacher. About a month ago, M.F’s cancer took a turn for the worse. When August arrived at his home, his eyes were closed and his breathing was very labored.
M.F.’s wife had already died and they had no children, so watching and crying around his bed were caretakers and students. They joined August in prayer and song for about 45 minutes.
M.F. remained unresponsive. Then they recited the Shema, the prayer many of his fellow death camp inmates recited before dying and one in which it is said is a blessing to die with on your lips.
As they got to the Shema’s last word, M.F. suddenly opened his eyes, said “thank you,” and died. Just like that. “It was like a movie or a book,” said August. “It was amazing.”
Lynne Blumberg is a freelance writer who lives and tries to stay healthy in Philadelphia.
This article originally appeared in a special "Fighting Cancer" section of the Exponent.