NEW YORK  - Psychotherapy focused on spirituality and finding meaning may help improve quality of life and well-being in terminally ill cancer patients, suggests a new study from a large cancer treatment center.

The talk therapy sessions only seemed to provide a short-term benefit — though researchers said that was reasonable given that many of the study participants were near the end of their lives, with progressively worsening disease. The study’s lead author said that while hospice and palliative care doctors and nurses are well-versed in treating pain and nausea, for example, there hasn’t been definitive evidence on the treatment of non-physical symptoms in very ill patients. “What palliative care clinicians have not had up until now are interventions that have shown some effectiveness in dealing with issues like loss of meaning, feeling demoralized (and) a loss of sense of spiritual well-being,” said Dr. William Breitbart, from New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

“This is a new tool,” he told Reuters Health. “It gives more structure to what people are already attempting to do.” Breitbart said that many hospitals and hospices offer terminal patients access to a clergyman or chaplain, but meaning-centered discussions with a psychotherapist could be an option for patients who don’t relate to a religious figure.

“This is a much more secular intervention based on a universal kind of language of meaning,” he added.

In his team’s study, 120 patients with stage 3 or 4 cancer — most commonly breast or colon cancer — were randomly assigned to attend seven hour-long sessions with a psychotherapist or to spend the same amount of time with a massage therapist.