“I'm Not a Spiritual Person.” How Hope Might Facilitate Conversations About Spirituality Among Teens and Young Adults With Cancer

Krysta S. Barton, Tyler Tate, Nancy Lau, Karen B. Taliesin, Elisha D. Waldman, Abby R. Rosenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Context: Supporting patients’ spiritual needs is central to palliative care. Adolescents and young adults (AYAs) may be developing their spiritual identities; it is unclear how to navigate conversations concerning their spiritual needs. Objectives: To 1) describe spiritual narratives among AYAs based on their self-identification as religious, spiritual, both, or neither and 2) identify language to support AYAs’ spiritual needs in keeping with their self-identities. Methods: In this mixed-methods, prospective, longitudinal cohort study, AYAs (14–25 years old) with newly diagnosed cancer self-reported their “religiousness” and “spirituality.” One-on-one, semistructured interviews were conducted at three time points (within 60 days of diagnosis, six to 12 months, and 12–18 months later) and included queries about spirituality, God/prayer, meaning from illness, and evolving self-identity. Post hoc directed content analysis informed a framework for approaching religious/spiritual discussions. Results: Seventeen AYAs (mean age 17.1 years, SD = 2.7, 47% male) participated in 44 interviews. Of n = 16 with concurrent survey responses, five (31%) self-identified as both “religious and spiritual,” five (31%) as “spiritual, not religious,” one (6%) as “religious, not spiritual,” and five (31%) as neither. Those who endorsed religiousness tended to cite faith as a source of strength, whereas many who declined this self-identity explicitly questioned their preexisting beliefs. Regardless of self-identified “religiousness” or “spirituality,” most participants endorsed quests for meaning, purpose, and/or legacy, and all included constructs of hope in their narratives. Conclusion: AYA self-identities evolve during the illness experience. When words such as “religion” and “spirituality” do not fit, explicitly exploring hopes, worries, meaning, and changing life perspectives may be a promising alternative.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1599-1608
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Pain and Symptom Management
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Adolescent and young adult
  • cancer
  • hope
  • palliative care
  • quality of life
  • religion
  • spirituality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Nursing
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine


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