The Gift of Today: Finding Joy and Purpose in the Present
Many physical and emotional changes can come with a cancer diagnosis. Yet it can also be a time to look inward and start living in the moment.
There isn’t a right way to take on cancer — there is only the way that is right for you. You’re in the driver’s seat and you will decide which road to take and how you choose to get to your desired destination.
A life touched by cancer is a life forever changed. Suddenly, setting goals, making plans, and thinking about the future seem to revolve around the diagnosis. It is normal to worry, to question your existence and life path, and to simply wonder, Why me?
Finding your own way to "take on" cancer is far from easy. But you are not alone.
Many of the changes that come with a cancer diagnosis are physical and emotional. Other changes can be more spiritual or existential in nature. These types of changes may lead you to question the meaning of your life or what really matters. There are different ways to find value in your life during and after cancer. Spending some time thinking about what matters most to you may help you discover new goals, priorities, and possibilities.
Here, we share 9 tips that can help you cope with cancer and find joy and purpose in the present.
1. Assess your life.
Some survivors say their cancer gave them a wake-up call and a second chance to make life what they want it to be. Ask yourself those tough questions.
- What makes me feel happy?
- Have I postponed things that are important to me?
- How do I really want to spend my time?
You may notice that the answers to these and other questions will help to define what is most meaningful to you.
“My outlook on life has changed tremendously. I’m far more appreciative of life and I live for the day. I don’t live for the future — it takes away from the moments we have at that present time. I love more, respect and honor things in life like I’ve never could before.”
Daniel Jacobs, boxing middleweight champion, cancer survivor
2. Enjoy nature.
Spending time outdoors can be very therapeutic, helping relieve stress and improving overall quality of life in cancer patients. Taking a walk, sitting in a quiet space outside your home, smelling flowers, and stargazing are all ways you can benefit from the outdoors. Talk to your doctor about what a safe outdoor space and activity could be for you.
“I love to walk and hike when I’m not in too much pain from my neuropathy; doing anything creative (painting, writing, crochet, scrapbooking); reading; swimming; and being around animals. I don’t have my own pets so I borrow friends’ cats, dogs, and horses for some critter therapy when I can.”
Liz, cancer survivor
3. Explore a creative activity.
Many people have found that doing something creative helps them express their emotions and reduces stress, depressive symptoms, and physical pain. Creative activities might include painting, drawing, taking photographs, gardening, or learning to play a musical instrument.
“Through my experience, I’ve learned to be faithful and journal daily. It’s between me and God. I also love to knit and crochet. I made a hat and wore it during a chemo session; a woman complimented me on it and I gave it to her. I thought to myself, there must be others who would like to receive hats as well. So I knit and crochet hats and give them all away. It helps me to know that I am helping other people.”
Ginni, cancer survivor
4. Give back.
For some people, reaching out and supporting others can help them find meaning in their cancer experience. Sharing your journey can be a meaningful way to share your cancer experience.
One way to share your experience is by joining the Cancer Experience Registry, an online research study that uncovers the emotional, physical, practical, and financial impact of cancer. By giving your time for this important research, your contributions can help deliver better outcomes for those impacted by cancer, now and in the future.
“I try to help other people. I’m online with laryngectomy support groups. I’m very active with one here in our town. [I go] to the hospital to see laryngectomy patients before or after an operation … I’m so happy to be able to tell that man or woman, ‘It gets better. It’s life-changing, not life-ending.”
Terry, cancer survivor
5. Become a self-advocate.
It’s important to learn about your disease and available treatments. Seek reliable, updated information and talk to others to help you make informed decisions and take actions that you know are best for you. This will help empower you and relieve some of the negative emotions that accompany cancer.
It’s also helpful to use an active coping style when experiencing stress, depression, or worry. This is a healthier way to cope than trying to avoid the problem. Here are some active ways to cope:
- Take action to get rid of the problem
- Plan how to deal with the problem
- Look for advice and information to deal with the problem
- Look for sympathy and emotional support
- Accept that the problem exists and decide what you can and cannot control
- Try to get a new perspective by making the best of the situation
- Become aware of your feelings about the problem and express them to others
Allowing yourself to sit quietly, connect with your spirituality, or practice breathing exercises may be helpful in creating the mental space and perspective you need to answer your questions about the meaning of life. Visit our virtual Mind Body Studio for yoga lessons, gentle exercises, and meditation videos.
7. Foster connections with others.
Studies have shown that sharing fears and anxieties with others helps to strengthen patients emotionally. You may find it helpful to express your feelings to trusted friends and family members, or talk to others like you who are navigating a cancer diagnosis.
CSC's digital support community, MyLifeLine, can help you connect with others in a similar situation. Find hope and inspiration on a variety of discussion forums for people impacted by cancer. You can also build a personal support network to share your experiences with friends and family.
In-person support groups are another way to find connection with others who can understand what you are going through. Support groups bring together people who have cancer so that they can help one another through their experiences.
8. Turn to spirituality.
Many people turn to their spiritual side to help them through their cancer. Spiritual help can include a church, synagogue, prayer, meditation, or simply a quiet place. Reading, talking with others, and reaching out to those in a spiritual setting can help lend you peace and strength.
People with cancer who have a religious affiliation may wish to meet with a representative of their faith to discuss the difficult questions that arise. This can help provide reassurance that having doubts and being angry are normal responses to having cancer.
9. Write it down.
Keep a journal. Write down your thoughts about what gives meaning to your life and what you are grateful for. Then you can read them any time you need a pick-me-up. Even writing down your life’s history can help put into perspective what you have already accomplished and what else you want to do.
“Writing has personally helped me process my experience in a very therapeutic way; throughout my journey, it allowed me to pour out all of my emotions on paper.”
Evelina, cancer survivor
A cancer diagnosis can change many aspects of your life. Surrounding yourself with a supportive community, trying positive activities such as meditation and journaling, and sharing your experience with others can help you discover joy and purpose in the present.
Editor's Note: This blog was originally published in 2021 and has been updated.