Cancer patients assess, mine spiritual strengths

October 1, 2011


When Trudy Barber learned a year and a half ago that she had advanced-stage breast cancer, she felt she had two options: "I could either rise up or spiral down in despair," said the 50-year-old Elbing, Kan., resident.

She said she made a conscious decision to trust God and not to lose hope.

New course work from a retreat center in Wichita, Kan., is helping her to do this by teaching her to understand and use her spiritual strengths as she copes with her condition. The course, Barber said, "has clarified a lot of the things I've felt and helped me understand: 'This is how I'm feeling and why.'"

This summer, Barber was among the two dozen or so participants in the inaugural session of the Spiritual Strengths Cancer Care Program, a series of courses for cancer patients and their loved ones. Offered at the Magnificat Center, a retreat facility run by the Congregation of St. Joseph, the program includes three two-and-a-half hour courses that build on an assessment conducted at the start of the program, with additional seminars that supplement that content base and instruction for at-home learning. The on-site courses take place in a small-group environment, with participants learning how to assess their spiritual strengths, develop those strengths, deal with pain, pray for healing and handle the challenges of living with a life-threatening illness. Caregivers, who take the classes alongside cancer patients and survivors, learn how to take care of themselves as they support a cancer patient.

"There is a healing power, a vitality that is available to people. This program is trying to help people tap into this energy — which is in there — from God," explained Richard Johnson, clinical director of the Spiritual Strengths program and president and academic dean of the St. Louis-based Body, Mind, Spirit Academy, a spiritual consulting practice. An author and conference speaker, Johnson worked with the Magnificat Center and the Congregation of St. Joseph to develop the Spiritual Strengths program, and he now travels from his home in St. Louis to the retreat center in Wichita monthly to present all of the courses.

Strengths and shadows
All of the course work is based on the body of work Johnson has developed on spiritual healing. A former director of behavioral sciences at St. John's Mercy Medical Center in St. Louis (now, Mercy Hospital St. Louis), he observed how much more adaptively some patients handled their diagnoses than did others. Through research, he determined that people with certain virtues, or spiritual strengths, are able to process their experiences with illness in a way that deepens their spirituality. He developed a 120-question survey, called the Spiritual Strengths Finder, to help people to identify their virtues and their spiritual "shadows" and "compulsions."

The shadows are the downsides of the virtues, and the compulsions are the virtues taken to extremes. For instance, a person may have the strength of having hope, but the shadow of that hope may be a vulnerability to despair, and the compulsion of having hope may be to see positive outcomes as inevitable.

Johnson has written 18 books on such subjects and had been presenting his research at conferences and to religious organizations when he connected with Sr. Helene Lentz, CSJ, director of the Magnificat Center. Together, they struck upon the idea of creating a spirituality course based on Johnson's work.

"There's obviously a need for this, with so many lives touched by cancer," said Sr. Lentz. According to the American Cancer Society, half of all men and one-third of all women in the U.S. will develop cancer during their lifetimes.

Transformative experiences
The Spiritual Strengths program, which is open to people of any faith or none, is drawing many of its enrollees from Wichita's Via Christi Health, a system founded by the Congregation of St. Joseph and the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother. In July, that health system opened its Via Christi Cancer Institute at one of its 12 facilities, Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis. Sr. Lentz explained that while that institute offers pastoral services to patients who are receiving inpatient or outpatient treatment, "they don't offer it to them after they leave. So, when a cancer patient finishes treatment, what is next? They may still have cancer or may be in remission, so they still need support."

Johnson, who received his own prostate cancer diagnosis in late 2008 — doctors are monitoring his condition — said that when people hear the word "cancer" their lives change. He said many people with cancer — including those in remission — feel anger, fear, resentment and helplessness. Entire families often are disrupted by a cancer diagnosis. Focusing entirely on such emotions can impede both physical and emotional healing, he said.

There's an alternative way of seeing sickness, that the course is aiming to teach, he said. The way people cope with a life-threatening illness has the potential to be transforming, "to change you and heal you spiritually," Johnson said.

Spiritual Strengths program manager Mary Costello said the course content and process is intended to help people "heal with spiritual care, achieve a better outlook and become more accepting of their condition. It helps lift them up spiritually." Costello recently retired as director of risk management at Via Christi, where she had worked for 41 years.

Chaplain Cecil Lilliston, with Via Christi Health, has been participating in the Spiritual Strengths program so he can describe it to patients he counsels at the cancer institute. A cancer survivor himself, Lilliston said a cancer diagnosis challenges people's spiritual beliefs. "We're in a situation that seems out of our hands, and this puts us in a situation where we're asking why and how. (This program) reminds us that a lot of our strengths and the ability to get through this is part of our spirituality. We can improve our strengths and be aware of our weaknesses."

Spiritual work
Barber, now on a brief hiatus from her treatment regimen, said it was enlightening to her to take the Spiritual Strengths Finder survey as part of the course and then to join fellow cancer patients and survivors in comparing their spiritual personalities. She said she has learned to identify when one of her spiritual shadows is hampering her and then to use this knowledge to turn to God for strength. "It's hard work to look at yourself through this lens, but it's very worthwhile," she said.

Barber said that seeking a clearer spiritual perspective on her diagnosis has "helped me to embrace where I am in my walk with Jesus."

The Magnificat Center funds the program with grant dollars from the Via Christi Partners in Caring volunteer group, the Congregation of St. Joseph and other donors as well as with a $50-per-course fee. Scholarships are available to low-income participants. In time, the center plans to use its own instructors to supplement Johnson's work with the program. It may tailor the program to aid people with other chronic conditions. It also hopes to offer a train-the-trainer program for other organizations.

Chaplain Lilliston said participants bond in the program and learn they are not alone in dealing with cancer. "There's a whole built-in support system. Everyone hits this program at different points (in their journey). But, everyone can see what support is out there for them."

Spiritual Strengths Finder survey

A spiritual assessment tool used in the Spiritual Strengths Cancer Care Program asks respondents to rate 120 statements on a scale of one to 10, with one signifying that the statement is "Not true for me" and 10 that it is "True for me."

Among the statements are:

  • My deepest thoughts lead me to the unity of God.
  • I feel emotionally filled as I recognize the giftedness in which I live.
  • I work diligently to be gentle, affectionate, and loving.
  • I am abundantly fulfilled in God and show great happiness of heart.
  • I recognize the "light side," the optimistic, and the sparkling parts of my life.
  • An unquestionable dependence on God's grace and power is at the very core of my being.
  • I am resolute in knowing that I cannot be hurt at my spiritual core.

Spirituality survey helps people identify strengths, shadows, compulsions

When people take the Spiritual Strengths Finder survey either online or in-person, their responses generate a 20-page report explaining what their top strengths are, as well as what the shadows and compulsions are for those strengths. The report also includes guidance on how to use this information to grow spiritually.

The strengths are organized by the function they play in a person's life.

For instance, the report may reveal that a person's action function relates to their spiritual strength of valuing truth. The shadow of a concern for truth is a vulnerability to deceit, and the compulsion — or harmful exaggeration of the strength — is to be overly skeptical.

Examples of additional spiritual strengths and their corresponding shadows and compulsions include:

  • The strength of having spiritual vision, has a shadow of vulnerability to blindness, and its compulsion is to follow illusions.
  • The strength of having faith, has a shadow of vulnerability to disloyalty, and faith's compulsion is overzealousness.
  • The strength of being transcendent spiritually, has a shadow of being vulnerable to worldliness, and its compulsion is to cross into unreality.

For a fee, anyone can take the Spiritual Strengths Finder and receive the analysis.

Courses offered through the Spiritual Strengths Cancer Care Program

Current course offerings at the Magnificat Center include:

Core classes

  • Discovering your unique spiritual strengths: God's power and might within you
  • . Embracing your own healing: The Spiritual Strengths Cancer Care immersion program
  •  Healing prayers for a new today and a new tomorrow: Healing cancer from the inside out


  • Caring for a loved one with cancer: The ten fundamental principles for optimal success
  • The most effective spiritual self-care practices for healing your cancer
  • Smiling through your cancer: opening the healing power of your soul
  • Depression and cancer: using your spiritual strengths and "holy imagination" to prevent depression from taking hold of you
  • Because I care: Spirit-motivated cancer caregiving
  • Staying centered during cancer: Keeping your emotional and psychological balance
  • Growing from success to significance: Constructing a life of meaning and purpose after cancer


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.