Alberta Cancer Foundation

Living after diagnosis

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Cancer treatment has been successful at extending many survivors’ lives well beyond what would have been expected a decade ago. However, most people still find themselves asking, “Now what?” as they end their treatment course. They want to know how to reintegrate into their lives, or how to find a “new normal” after a life-changing cancer diagnosis and treatment.

For many who have “more moments” in their lives due to better treatments for cancer, re-prioritizing what matters to them becomes central. Facing your own mortality can re-focus attention on family, friendships and travel, and can help when figuring out what is most important to you. It can also highlight changes you want to make to bring about balance. For some, it might inspire giving back to other cancer patients, so that the lessons you have learned along the way can be useful for someone else. Even for people who go on to live a normal life after cancer and never die of the disease, they often refer to their cancer diagnosis as a “wake-up call.”

Researchers studying this existential wake-up call have found that for some survivors, making sense of how to fit the cancer experience into their day-to-day lives involves a deeper search for meaning. For many people, this involves finding benefits in a cancer experience, even though you wish you had never had to go through it. The benefit might come through finally changing things you had long wished to but couldn’t seem to get to, or from telling people around you how you really feel about them. For some, this has meant leaving negative relationships and finding people who truly validate and support positive goals, or changing careers, jobs or where they live in order to make the most of remaining time. Changing lifestyle behaviours in accordance with your oncologist’s advice can be one concrete place to start to make changes.

The following are some exciting tools to help you develop deeper understanding of your experience, develop a new purpose and strengthen your sense of meaning in life:

  • Begin or re-commit to keeping a journal of your thoughts and feelings as a way to track the changes you are undergoing as a cancer survivor.
  • Make use of the healing arts classes offered through your cancer centre. This can help you tap into deeper aspects of what is meaningful to you. This might include many creative activities including drawing and painting, dance, music and telling your story in ways that others can benefit from.
  • Finding ways to give back to others through volunteer work can deepen a sense of purpose. There are many ways for people to volunteer, for instance through Alberta Health Services’ Patient Engagement (sitting on professional committees that recommend changes to health-care teams), at Wellspring and informally to others in your friendship networks as they experience cancer in their own lives.
  • Think about taking part in a research study, because whether it is biological samples, questionnaires or interviews, it is a way for your experience to make things better for future cancer survivors.
  • Talk with other survivors to help you to consider different perspectives and expand your horizons.
  • Contact a local spiritual care team or clergy member, who can also play an important role in helping you to find meaning in your life after cancer.

These suggestions are only a few of the things others have documented that can help answer the “What now?” questions that inevitably arise once cancer treatment has ended and you are creating the rest of your life. Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, talked a lot about the importance of finding meaning in life as a way to rise above even the direst of life-threatening circumstances. Here are two of his most famous quotes:

  • “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
  • “Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how.’”