Hospital chaplain forges inescapable link between cancer and spirituality

David Maginley was just 17-years-old the first time he was diagnosed with cancer, and it sent his life in a completely new direction.

'I was searching for the meaning of life'

'Don't waste the crisis,' counsells David Maginley. (

David Maginley was just 17-years-old the first time he was diagnosed with cancer, and it sent his life in a completely new direction.

"I ended up studying philosophy and comparative religion, a really different course than I thought I would ever take," Maginley told CBC's Island Morning.

"I was searching for the meaning of life."

It took him decades, but eventually that meaning found him. Twenty years ago he left the Lutheran church that he had been leading for 10 years to become a hospital interfaith spiritual counsellor. He currently works at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax, where he has supported thousands of cancer patients.

A 4-time survivor

The message he brings to these people who are fighting for their lives is not an easy one.

"Don't waste the crisis. This has so much energy and potential to help you grow."

It's fundamentally a spiritual thing.- David Maginley

Maginley has faced cancer diagnoses four times, and as he fought for his life he wondered about exactly what it was he was fighting for.

He concluded that fundamentally what he wanted was more moments of consciousness, so that he could use those moments to continue to develop his relationships with others, and to love them.

"It's fundamentally a spiritual thing, because God is love. All healthy spiritual traditions teach this," he said.

"We are more than biology. We are an entire complex person, and spirituality is at the foundation of what it is to be a living human being."

Making love stronger than fear

While he speaks in terms of God, he says belief in God is not necessary to this approach. Because God is love, a belief in love is all that's necessary.

By way of example, he tells the story of one patient he worked with, a sixth-degree black belt who ran a karate school. Cancer had wasted away his fine physical form and he was struggling with how to move on.

Maginley instructed him in a meditation technique, asking him to breathe in the suffering of the patients around him, add it to his own, and breathe out his compassion to them.

"This empowered him. He, now, was in the driver's seat. Cancer had him, but he didn't have cancer," Maginley said.

"He encountered the better part of himself, so the love became stronger than the fear."

A needed sabbatical

While his work is rewarding it came at a cost.

"It results in emotional cholesterol, it builds up inside of you. They call it compassion fatigue," he said.

One thing that has helped, Maginley said, is writing, and he has recently published a book, Beyond Surviving: Cancer and Your Spiritual Journey.

I don't want to stay on 'Why did I get this?'- David Maginley

"It helped process all of that sorrow and sadness that had actually been interfering and compromising my well-being," he said.

Maginley is on sabbatical now, promoting the book and taking care of himself.

But he continues to reflect on not just what he has seen in others, but on his own experience of cancer.

"I don't want to stay on, 'Why did I get this?' Let's move to 'What am I going to do with this? How am I going to use the cancer to make my life bigger than it was before?'" said Maginley.

"I'm so grateful to be alive."

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With files from Island Morning