Some survivors want to find a deeper meaning in their cancer experience. You may be trying to understand the greater purpose or reason behind your illness and what it means for your life now. Exploring your feelings about cancer and your reactions to it can help you find meaning in survivorship.
Finding Meaning: Detailed Information
This information is meant to be a general introduction to this topic. The purpose is to provide a starting point for you to become more informed about important matters that may be affecting your life as a survivor and to provide ideas about steps you can take to learn more. This information is not intended nor should it be interpreted as providing professional medical, legal and financial advice. You should consult a trained professional for more information. Please read the Suggestions and Additional Resources sections for questions to ask and for more resources.
The cancer journey does not end with treatment. The immediate illness may be in remission or cured, but you may find that your life has changed in unexpected ways. The changes that come with cancer are as different as the types of people who get cancer. Some survivors think that finding meaning is one way to better understand their cancer experience. When you try to find meaning in your cancer experience, it means you are trying to understand the greater purpose or reason behind your illness and what it means for your life now.
Some survivors search for a greater understanding about what it means to be a cancer survivor. There may be benefit in trying to define the meaning for them. Exploring the meaning of the experience may help them learn more about themselves.
On the other hand, some survivors decide that there is no need to search for a deeper meaning in their own cancer journey. There may be an acceptance of the experience without a need to question it. Living life as they did before cancer may be what gives them the greatest comfort. This is an individual choice. A happy and fulfilling life does not require an ongoing search for meaning in every situation.
Why does cancer cause some survivors to try to find meaning?
Although cancer may not bring many changes for some survivors, others might find that life has been changed dramatically. A desire to find meaning may vary by needs and personality. If you have questions about how and why cancer has occurred in your life, you are probably searching for the meaning of this experience.
Common reasons for wanting to find meaning in the cancer journey include:
- A desire to find purpose in the illness
- Recognition that cancer was a life-changing experience and wanting to understand more about the effect the illness had on your life
- A change in interests and priorities resulting in no longer being interested in some things that were important to you before cancer
- A way to understand life changes and to find a way of healing
Thinking too much about your cancer experience or how to find meaning may increase uncomfortable feelings and thoughts. You may want to spend a day or two thinking about the meaning in your cancer experience, and then focus on other things for a while. The search for meaning does not have to be constant, and you do not have to find the meaning right away. It may be several years before you decide on the meaning of the experience in terms of the life changes that occurred.
Cancer and treatment sometimes leave survivors feeling frightened and unsure about the future. A search for meaning in the illness is one way to try to reduce fear and uncertainty in your life after cancer. Finding meaning may be your way of making sense out of life after cancer.
You may fear that cancer has completely changed your life. One of the greatest fears is that cancer will end life too soon. When treatment has ended, you may view your life in two parts: life before cancer and life after cancer. There may be a sense that you have beaten death, and you may have a strong need to understand why.
In some cases, it may not be possible to truly understand the reasons for cancer. However, thinking about it may make the experience easier to deal with. If trying to find meaning overwhelms you emotionally, you might benefit from talking with a member of your health care team, such as an oncology social worker. You can also ask your health care provider to refer you to a licensed counselor for support and guidance.
What is the best way to search for meaning about the cancer journey?
You can begin to search for an understanding of your cancer experience at any point. There are different emotions and challenges that may occur at the time of diagnosis, during treatment, and months or even years after treatment has ended. The search can last through all stages or come and go.
The following activities may help you find the meaning that gives you support and strength:
This document was produced in collaboration with:
- Keep track of your thoughts and feelings by writing them down or doing some type of creative process such as art, photography or dance.
- Define and understand what is most important in your life.
- Talk to other survivors and share the purpose, meaning, and growth that have been found during the cancer experience.
- Talk to a licensed counselor or therapist if depression, anxiety or any part of the cancer journey becomes overwhelming.
Carolyn K. Kinney, RN, PhD, HNC
Health and Wellness Consultant
Armstrong, L. Every second counts. New York: Broadway Books, 2003.
Armstrong. L. It's not about the bike: My journey back to life. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2000.
Bolen, J.S. Close to the bone: Life-threatening illness and the search for meaning. New York: Simone & Schuster, 1998.
Frankl, V. Man's Search for Meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Pocket Books, 1984.
Harpham, W.S. After cancer: A guide to your new life. New York: Norton, 1994.
Harpham, W.S. Diagnosis Cancer: Your guide to the first months of healthy survivorship. New York: Norton, 2003.
Lerner, M. Choices in healing: Integrating the best of conventional and complementary approaches to cancer. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998.
Remen, R.N. Kitchen table wisdom. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
Ryan, M.J. Attitudes of gratitudes: How to give and receive joy every day of your life. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press, 1999.
Seaward, B.L. Health of the human spirit: Spiritual dimensions for personal health. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2001.
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Finding Meaning: Suggestions
The suggestions that follow are based on the information presented in the Detailed Information document. They are meant to help you take what you learn and apply the information to your own needs. This information is not intended nor should it be interpreted as providing professional medical, legal and financial advice. You should consult a trained professional for more information. Please read the Additional Resources document for links to more resources.
- Identify things about the cancer experience that have led you to question the meaning of cancer and how it has changed your views on life in general.
Some of the reasons cancer causes people to try to find meaning:
- Cancer is a serious illness that, in some cases, can take your life
- Treatment can sometimes leave permanent changes to your body
- Your relationships may change
- Your interests may change
- Other people may see you differently now
- Write down your thoughts and feelings in a journal.
Keeping a diary or journal may help you understand and find meaning in what is happening in your life. You are free to write about anything you like, including:
- Hopes and fears
- Your life after treatment
- What it means to be a cancer survivor
- Your plans for the present and the future
You may find the process of journaling helps you recognize areas in your life that you can feel good about and areas that you want to change.
Find a quiet, comfortable spot to do your writing. Spend as much time writing as you want. You can write several pages, a couple of lines or even just one word to express how you feel or what you are thinking.
- Understand what is important in your life.
Make a list of what is important to you, such as your goals, dreams and what you hope for in the future.
- You could have a short-term list related to the next few days or weeks and a long-term list related to the next month or year.
- You can decide what is most important to you on the list and try to accomplish those things first.
- Create a plan of action.
- From the list you have created, pick at least one or two of the short-term items, and make a plan for how you can accomplish them. For example, you might include something related to wanting to enjoy life more.
The plan of action might be that you would do at least one thing each day that brings you joy. This could be sitting quietly while enjoying a cup of tea, going for a walk in the park, playing a musical instrument, or soaking in the bathtub.
- Pick one or two long-term items and develop a plan. For example you might want to learn more about a specific topic or to go back to school.
The plan of action could be to get a class brochure for a local community college or to look for courses online.
- Talk with other survivors about their desire to find meaning in their own cancer experience:
Support groups provide a safe environment to share experiences with other survivors, learn new ways to handle difficult situations and talk about emotions. You will see different styles of coping with stress and adjusting to life as a cancer survivor. If you are uncomfortable talking about certain subjects with your family or friends, a support group offers you a place to talk freely about what is important to you.
Ways to find out more about support groups in your area:
- Ask a member of your health care team for suggestions. Most cancer programs offer support groups for cancer survivors and their family members right in the clinic or hospital.
- Call a nearby cancer center or university hospital and ask about support groups.
- Visit LIVESTRONG Cancer Navigation Services at www.LIVESTRONG.org/GetHelp, or call toll free 1.855.220.7777 for information and support.
- Talk to a therapist if trying to find meaning causes depression, anxiety or overwhelms you in any way:
Share your concerns and feelings with people you trust. Talking with another person about your feelings and what is causing them can help you understand more clearly what you are feeling and help you find ways to manage your feelings.
Ask your health care provider for a referral to a therapist who works with other cancer survivors. Most cancer centers employ oncology social workers who are specially trained to work with cancer survivors and their families. Even if you are not a patient at a cancer center, the oncology social worker may meet with you or refer you to someone else in the community.
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Finding Meaning: Additional Resources
The previous sections of this document provide detailed information, suggestions, and questions to ask related to this topic. This section offers a listing of additional resources that are known to provide support and quality services that may be helpful to survivors during the cancer journey.
LIVESTRONG Cancer Navigation Center
||1.855.220.7777 (English and Spanish)
||Navigators are available for calls Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Central Time). Voicemail is available after hours.
The Navigation Center provides free, confidential one-on-one support to anyone affected by cancer. This is not a medical facility, but rather a center that provides the following support services:
- Emotional Support—assistance coping with a cancer diagnosis, help accessing support groups, as well as peer-to-peer connections
- Fertility Risks and Preservation Options—information on fertility risks and help accessing discounted rates for fertility preservation options
- Insurance, Employment and Financial Concerns—information on employment rights and benefits, financial assistance and debt management, including insurance and billing issues as well as medication co-pay assistance
In addition to professional cancer navigators on staff, LIVESTRONG
partners with specialty organizations such as Patient Advocate Foundation, Imerman Angels, Navigate Cancer Foundation and EmergingMed to provide support services.
American Cancer Society (ACS)
||Submit questions in English or Spanish from the “Contact Us” page.
||TTY for deaf or hard of hearing callers: 1-866-228-4327
The American Cancer Society (ACS) offers information about many of the challenges of cancer and survivorship. You can search for information by cancer type or by topic. ACS provides a list of support groups in your area. ACS can connect you to support and services in your area. You can join online groups and message boards. Some information on the website is available in Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. ACS specialists can answer questions 24 hours a day by phone or email.
Cancer Hope Network
||This number is answered Monday-Friday, from 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (EST). Voicemail is available after hours.
Cancer Hope Network is a not-for-profit organization that provides free and confidential one-on-one support to cancer patients and their families. They offer support by matching cancer patients or family members with trained volunteers who have already undergone and recovered from a similar cancer experience. You can submit your request by phone or by email. A volunteer will try to contact you within 24 hours.
||Send email through the website.
CaringBridge is a nonprofit organization that offers free, easy-to-create web sites to connect family and friends during a health crisis. This site can help ease the burden of keeping loved ones updated. It provides a way for them to send their support and encouragement. Step-by-step instructions are provided for creating and updating the site you create.
National Cancer Institute (NCI) — National Institutes of Health
||The LiveHelp online chat service is available Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Eastern Time.
||Send an email through the website.
||Information specialists answer calls Monday–Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time.
The National Cancer Institute's website provides accurate information about the challenges cancer can bring. You can search for information by cancer type or topic. You can find information about treatment and financial and insurance matters. You can also learn how treatments in development work and search for a clinical trial in your area. This site also has a good dictionary of cancer terms, drug information and other publications. Cancer information specialists can answer your questions about cancer and help you with quitting smoking. They can also help you with using the website and can tell you about NCI’s printed and electronic materials. The knowledgeable and caring specialists have access to comprehensive, accurate information on a range of cancer topics, including the most recent advances in cancer treatment. The service is confidential, and information specialists spend as much time as needed for thorough and personalized responses.
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