Finding Meaning After Cancer

Having a potentially life-threatening illness like cancer often leads people to examine their lives and look for meaning. In fact, this search for meaning may be the aspect of cancer that has the most positive influence on your life.

Re-visiting long-held beliefs and values provides an opportunity to think about what truly matters most to you, and it can impact the quality of your life in very positive ways. The time following a cancer diagnosis can be a time to reconnect with the many different ways one defines a meaningful life and to make the changes that are important to you.

You may decide to make a commitment to focus more on spending time with family and friends. Or you may decide to complete a project such as finishing a scrapbook or act on something you have always wanted to do, like take up a new hobby or travel. There is no right answer that will fit all people. The changes you make will be deeply personal and be a reflection of you and what you value.

Another way you may decide to look for meaning in your life is by trying to make a difference in the world, on whatever scale. You may decide to work with an organization that helps people with cancer or their families. Or, you may decide to participate in a research study (a clinical trial). There is no one right answer to the search for meaning after cancer treatment. Each quest is unique.

If you believe in a supreme being who controls the daily affairs of humans, the question, “Why me?” is often directed at your God. What did I do to deserve cancer? It is comforting to feel you have some control over this frightening development. Thus many people look back in their lives for some sin or bad deed that could merit cancer as a punishment. Although some clergy also take this view, most religions view God as loving and forgiving. It is hard to believe that a good, all-powerful God would make only “bad people” sick. Think of the kind and good people who die of cancer daily, and the evil ones who live a long and healthy span of years.

If you find that you are extremely anxious about the future, reach out to a trusted friend, faith leader, or mental health professional. Talk to your oncologist, oncology nurse or oncology social worker about your concerns. Some fears and concerns may be unfounded and can be cleared up through a better understanding of your cancer and its treatment. There are also medications that your oncologist can prescribe that may be helpful to reduce the stress you are feeling.

No matter what the future may hold, it is important to remember that you can live fully in the moment. Focusing on the here-and-now can help shift your thinking, do, even if temporarily, away from fears and worries. Try to do the things you normally do that bring you pleasure, even if adjustments need to be made. Make plans for the future in ways that are meaningful for you. Playing with a grandchild, listening to a favorite piece of music, taking a walk or sharing a special meal with a friend can help you to remember to enjoy life today.