Finding Meaning

Matthews B.

Hairy Cell Leukemia Survivor

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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 your cancer experience.

You can begin to search for an understanding of your cancer experience at any point. There are different emotions and challenges that 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.

Some will decide that there’s no need to search for a deeper meaning in their own cancer journey. They accept 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.

Your search for deeper meaning in the cancer journey brings:

  • 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.

Combating Fear

Cancer and treatment can leave you 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. Finding meaning may be your way of making sense out of the cancer experience.

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.

Accepting the Process

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.

Activities to Help You Find the Meaning

  • 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. Make a list of your goals, dreams and what you hope for in the future – short-term and long term.
  • Pick one or two items on your list and create a plan of action of carrying them out.
  • 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.

Ask your health care provide for suggestions on finding a support group and a counselor. You can also contact LIVESTRONG Cancer Navigation Services at or call 855-220-7777.

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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.


Works Cited

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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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