Jennifer Hulett, a 20-year nurse practitioner and assistant professor at the University of Missouri Sinclair School of Nursing is researching the benefits of spirituality on improving immune health and reducing stress, as well as the chances of cancer recurrence among breast cancer survivors.
As a nurse practitioner, Hulett observed that breast cancer survivors would express gratitude for being alive and mention God or a divine being for their survival. In a recent study, she collected and froze samples of saliva from 41 breast cancer survivors at MU’s Ellis Fischel Cancer Center. In her results, she learned that breast cancer survivors’ reports of practicing forgiveness and receiving positive social support from their congregation or other social support network were linked with two specific biomarkers, alpha-amylase and interleukin-6.
Huletts discovery laid a foundation for further examination of the impact spirituality plays in the health and well-being of both cancer survivors and individuals managing chronic disease. In a news release, she wrote, “Breast cancer survivors are often a highly spiritual group given the trauma they have been through, and we found they often have more positive spiritual beliefs in a loving God or higher power rather than a punitive, punishing God. This confirmed what I had previously experienced anecdotally as a nurse. Breast cancer survivors would often express gratitude and contribute their health and well-being to a higher power, and they tended to have better health outcomes as well.”
Hulett’s research is a result of other findings indicating positive spiritual beliefs are associated with healthier levels of cortisol, a biomarker commonly associated with stress, among breast cancer survivors.
“Cortisol and stress suggest chronic inflammation, and anything we can do to lower levels of stress and inflammation will have a good effect on a patient’s longevity, health outcomes, and reduced risk of recurrent disease,” Hulett said.
Her studies are the foundation to future research that evaluates the effectiveness of spirituality and mindfulness interventions, like daily prayer, mediation, yoga, and relaxation, on health outcomes among cancer survivors and individuals with chronic disease.
“We already know these interventions improve mental health, but they might also improve physical health as well, and we can try to prove it by looking at these physiological biomarkers,” Hulett said. “These spiritual interventions are what nurses can use at the bedside to quickly implement if they see patients struggling to cope with their illness. Any evidence-based solutions we can equip nurses with will help improve patient health outcomes, and that is where these mind-body interventions can play a role going forward.”