How to Find Your Footing When Living with Cancer
Do you have a sense of purpose?
It’s okay if your answer to that question is “no.” A cancer diagnosis upends your life: physically, mentally, and spiritually. In the midst of dealing with a flurry of appointments, unpleasant side effects, and heavy conversations with loved ones, you may find your goals, priorities, and even what’s possible are shifting. All this leaves you to wonder: “Now what?”
Research shows that almost everyone going through cancer finds themselves asking this question. Cancer challenges people to examine their own lives, whether it’s to try to answer the question “why me?” or to reflect on ways they want to be remembered after their death (even if they have a favorable outlook for recovery). Some refer to this as an existential crisis, while others may label it a wake-up call. Whatever you call it, know that it’s absolutely normal.
A lack of meaning and purpose, coupled with uncertainty about the future, can result in anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. You may start asking a lot of questions about your life’s purpose, or you may feel regret over past choices you’ve made in life. A therapist, religious advisor, or oncology social worker can be a valuable resource in helping you to work through these complex emotions. But if you’re not ready to discuss these feelings yet, that’s fine, too. There are many ways to find meaning, fulfillment, and satisfaction as you progress through your cancer journey.
Ask yourself: “What’s most important right now?”
Meaning and purpose can change over time. What was important to you before may not have the same priority today—and what’s important today can change tomorrow. All of it can be productive. In fact, post-traumatic growth—positive personal change that comes from a difficult experience—is an extremely common outcome of a cancer diagnosis. But no matter what the endpoint, reflecting on what is important to you now can give you clarity on where to focus your time, energy, and attention. Some aspects to consider:
- Relationships (spouse/partner, children, parents, siblings, or friends)
- Work and career
- Education and achievement
- Connecting with nature
- Helping others
- Caring for the environment
- Healthy living
- Caring for animals
Break down the big questions.
“What did I do to deserve this?” or “what’s my future going to look like?” are big questions, and the pursuit of answers can be overwhelming. It may help to break your question down into small, actionable questions, like “how do I want to play this hand I’ve been dealt today?” or “what can I do this week to add more value to my life?”
Set goals for each day.
These don’t have to be big, virtuous goals. Even small goals (like “Tell Sara she did a great job on this project” or “Donate to local homeless shelter”) can reaffirm your big picture. By writing down meaningful intentions each day, you are taking actionable steps toward meaning and fulfillment. It can also help remind you to stay in the present, instead of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
Reframe your schedule.
Cancer treatment and its downtime can easily become the focus of your day, whether it’s sitting in a chemo treatment room for hours or recovering in bed for days after a surgery. Instead of seeing this as a tedious time, however, think of it as an opportunity to invest in the things that are important to you, whether that’s writing in a journal, reading books that are intellectually or spiritually stimulating, or watching a favorite film while snuggled up with a loved one.
Redirect your energy.
Cancer may be a big part of your life right now, but it’s not the only part. When you find yourself becoming consumed by your thoughts or feelings about cancer, balance that by focusing on the other important parts of your life. Something as simple as going on a hike, calling a friend, helping your child with their homework, or mentoring someone at work can shift your attention to the things that bring you satisfaction.
Connect with people.
Some scholars suggest that connection with others is key for finding meaning. This is particularly important for people who are fighting cancer, as isolation has been found to have a negative impact on physical, mental, and emotional health. Make an effort to connect with other human beings at least once per day, even if only briefly.
Remember: It’s okay not to be okay.
Not everyone has a big spiritual awakening as a result of their cancer diagnosis, treatment, or recovery. It’s okay to grapple with your search for meaning, and it’s normal to feel scared, angry, or even numb. But if these feelings are persistent or overwhelming, or if they interfere with your daily functioning, please tell your doctor, oncology social worker, or a loved one. Though it’s possible to work through difficult questions on your own, sometimes the most valuable answers come when we ask for help.
The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at [email protected].