What does after cancer mean?

First let’s take a look at what we mean by ‘after cancer’. It can mean many things. It can mean after a diagnosis, irrespective of the outcome or what stage of illness or wellness you are. It can mean life after cancer is over; meaning treatment has finished, if indeed it has for you. It can also mean life after cancer has happened to someone else, perhaps someone close to us or around us.

Now, let’s look at life purpose – what does it mean, why do we ask it after cancer, how can we find it and how do we know when we have it?

What does life purpose mean?
Life purpose might mean what you do with your time, what you’re passionate about, what brings you joy, happiness and wellness. Life purpose might be what your job is in the world – paid or not, employed or not. Life purpose might be what we feel we’re drawn to that brings us meaning. 

Why cancer raises this question?
Outside of a cancer experience, many of us will have times we’re drawn to ask what our life’s purpose is; the death a loved one, a birth, a forced change in work perhaps. So these questions are not unique to cancer per se, but commonly asked at junctions in our lives. 
A cancer diagnosis is often a catalyst for change in our lives. A significant health challenge like cancer will draw on resources that you may never had to use before – strength, resilience, emotions you don’t like, and some you do. 

Following this experience, it’s not uncommon to look at how you were living your life before cancer to now, and how you’d like to live it going forward. It brings acute focus on how you spend your time and what meaning you get from your life. 

Sometimes this focus makes us feel good and provides a wonderful guidance to making things happen that we want to now reach for. 

Other times, this focus can be overwhelming and all consuming when we feel there should be an answer to what our purpose is. We might feel we have to honour how we’re spending our time and ensure every minute is spent well, which can be an unrealistic expectation that we need to manage, unless we’re to spend our time feeling guilty that we aren’t making every second count.

How do we find our life’s purpose and when do we know we have it?
This question is clearly subjective and we’ll all use different markers to answer and assess whether we’ve found our life’s purpose or not.

Interestingly, some report that cancer itself is their life purpose, providing that acute focus on their health experience. Others say that as a result of cancer they now have a life purpose, pushing them to be, live and work in a way that fulfils their every need. But how do we find this elusive construct if we don’t feel we have it?

Rather than seeing life purpose as a binary outcome (“I have it or I don’t”) we should view it instead as a fluid construct that changes over time, that has different markers we choose to assess it against as we need to and that allows us to see where on a scale we are, of feeling we have purpose at any one time or not. So, I might feel that a three- month sabbatical away from my home is a time when I find meaning and purpose in my life, so I’m high on the scale, but my return is rocky and I’m uncertain so I move to lower on the scale, but I take up running as a hobby which I love so it moves higher again, and I meet new friends and it moves higher still. Try this for yourself and see.

What brings us meaning?
What brings us meaning of course also differs for all - it may be spending time with loved ones, feeling we’re doing good in the world, bringing in money, a spiritual focus, small things or big things in our lives – each facet will make up how we feel we are living now.

We can start with understanding our values – what drives and motivates us in our life. Not what we think we should be driven and motivated by, but what really gets us to our core that we love and cannot live without. That is where we can start to look for our purpose because in understanding our values we can then focus our time on activities, projects or living overall in the way that meets those values.

So, first, we will look for a sliding scale of assessing our purpose rather than a yes or no to having it. Second, we will be guided by our values, the things that drive and motivate us, to look for what gives us purpose. 

Third – we will take action – which can be overwhelming. What if we make the wrong decisions or take actions that don’t lead to our purpose? If we keep in mind that it’s a constant sliding scale this helps, but may not always appease our concerns.

Part of our experience after cancer will be learning to be OK with the unknown and learning to test things out – testing out ideas, projects, hobbies, even whole lifestyles, to assess how right they feel to us. This doesn’t have to mean drastic change (although it can if you want it to), but rather a constant stream of assessments as to what feels right and even better as we live along this post-cancer path. Accepting that risk and vulnerability might come with testing new things out in our lives might be something we need to get used to – as if we needed to feel more vulnerable. But this time it can in your control and through your choice, which cancer provided little of.

Of course, this all sounds luxurious; perhaps we don’t have the time, money or energy to constantly try things out to see if that’s our purpose. But the very idea that each task, project and turn of our lives can provide movement along the scale one way or another, to feeling we have more or less purpose can’t be underestimated as a lovely way to guide us in this unknown future, in the hope that we feel good, better, focused, happy, well and contented. 

5 questions to get you thinking about your life’s purpose

  1. When was the last time you were truly, deeply happy? What was it about that time that you loved and would be possible to have again?
  2. What would you tell yourself if you only had 24 hours 
  3. Who and What drives and motivates you to be the person you are? 
  4. What’s been your favourite time of your life? How could you get that again (understanding that lots of conditions will be different now, but working towards that feeling)
  5. What do you always say you’d like to do or be? Imagining this was truly possible, how would it make you feel?


Emily Hodge, MSc (MBPsS), Dip
Supporting people after cancer, challenges and change

Moving Forward from Cancer Support group: 

Petra Tiziani