Finding Meaning

This page has been modified from the National Cancer Institute's Facing Forward Series: Life After Cancer, last modified in 2017.

Survivors often express the need to understand what having had cancer means to their lives now. In fact, many find that cancer causes them to look at life in new ways. They may reflect on spirituality, the purpose of life, and what they value most.

Others report feeling lucky or "blessed" to have survived treatment and take new joy in each day. For some, the meaning of their illness comes out only after they have been living with cancer for a long time; for others, the meaning changes over time. It also is common to view the cancer experience both negatively and positively at the same time. Often, people make changes in their lives to reflect what matters most to them now. You might spend more time with your loved ones, place less focus on your job, or enjoy the pleasures of nature. You also might find that going through a crisis like cancer gives you new power and pride. "I feel good that I've found ways to cope," one colon cancer survivor said. "I also feel better able to handle any future problems that might come up. I have new skills, and I now know I have strength."

Cancer survivors often report that they look at their faith or their spirituality in a new way. For some, it may get stronger or seem more vital. Others may question their faith and wonder about the meaning of life. A new focus on the present is common, too. "I used to be goal-oriented, knowing what I was doing and what I intended to achieve during a given period," one prostate cancer survivor explained. "And now that is history; I take it day by day."

How to Find Meaning After Cancer

How do you find new meaning in your life after cancer? Here are some ideas that have worked for other cancer survivors.

  • Talk to a member of the clergy.
    Local cancer organizations may be able to help you find clergy in your area who have experience/training helping cancer survivors deal with life questions.
  • Keep a journal.
    Write down your thoughts about what gives meaning to your life now.
  • Think about helping others who have had cancer.
    "I think too many cancer survivors, after treatment, just want to get it behind them," one leukemia survivor said. "Yet they could be a great help to others through supporting other survivors." Many local and national cancer groups need people to help. Or, you may prefer to reach out to people you know or friends of friends.
  • Take a new look at old patterns.
    Some survivors say their cancer gave them a "wakeup call" and a second chance to make life what they want it to be. Ask yourself: Do your roles in your family fulfill you, or are you doing what people expect of you? What have you NOT done that you most want to try? Are you happy in your job, or are you just used to it?
  • Think about taking part in a research study.
    Research studies are trying to identify the effects of cancer and its treatment on survivors. Joining a research study is always voluntary, and you could benefit both yourself and others. If you want to learn more about studies that involve cancer survivors, talk to your doctor.

Clinical trials at Dana-Farber 

Finding Meaning Through Faith, Religion or Spirituality

Dealing with a serious illness can affect one's spiritual outlook, whether or not one feels connected to traditional religious beliefs. After treatment, you and your loved ones may struggle to understand why cancer has entered your lives. You may wonder why you have to endure such a trial in your life.

At the same time, many survivors have found that their faith or religion or sense of spirituality is a source of strength as they face life after cancer treatment. Many survivors say that through their faith, they have been able to find meaning in their lives and make sense of their cancer experience. Faith or religion can also be a way for survivors to connect to others in their community who may share similar experiences or outlooks or who can provide support. Many survivors have found that religious gatherings helped them meet new people and find support through a trying time. Studies have also shown that for some, religion can be an important part of both coping with and recovering from cancer.

The way cancer affects one's faith or religion is different for everyone. Some turn away from their religion because they feel it has deserted them. It is common to question one's faith after cancer. These are difficult questions, but for some, seeking answers and searching for personal meaning in spirituality helps them cope.

Here are ways you may find comfort and meaning through your faith or religion:

  • Reading religious materials that are uplifting and can help you feel connected to a higher power
  • Praying or meditating to help you feel less fearful or anxious
  • Talking about your concerns or fears with a religious leader
  • Going to religious gatherings to meet new people
  • Talking to others at your place of worship who have had similar experiences
  • Finding resources at a place of worship for people dealing with chronic illnesses like cancer

Tips: Finding Faith-Based Support

How can you find faith-based support in your community? Here are some ideas that have helped other cancer survivors:

  • Contact a religious leader in your community. Most spiritual leaders have been trained in counseling people with major illnesses.
  • Contact the chaplain at your local hospital or treatment facility. Most hospitals have a staff chaplain who can provide support to people of different faiths and religions, as well as people who do not consider themselves "religious" at all. These chaplains have also been trained to provide support to patients and families in crisis.
  • Talk with your hospital, health care team, or social worker. They may know about faith-based organizations in your community that provide specialized services for cancer survivors.

Learn more about Spiritual Care at Dana-Farber