Surviving Cancer Can Bring Unexpected Meaning to Life

Cancer can impact a person’s physical, psychological, and emotional well-being. Aside from the obvious physical challenges cancer survivors face, psychological and emotional challenges often arise in the aftermath of diagnoses and treatment. Physical impairments can limit a person’s ability to work or enjoy recreational activities, which in turn can cause feelings of isolation and depression.

Many cancer survivors also struggle with the fear that their cancer could return. There is a wide body of research devoted to resiliency in survivors of life-threatening illnesses, but few have focused solely on making meaning of life after cancer. Because meaning making, or finding value and purpose in one’s life, is essential to psychological well-being, understanding how cancer survivors address meaning making can be helpful for clinicians and others caring for them.

Nadia van der Spek of the Department of Clinical Psychology at VU University in the Netherlands sought to get a better idea of how cancer survivors make meaning of their lives after cancer using focus groups. For her study, van der Spek conducted four separate focus sessions with 23 cancer survivors and asked them specifically about peer support, outlook on life, purpose in life, well-being, and whether or not they were receiving the emotional support they needed.

She found that the survivors had both positive and negative experiences as a result of their cancers. The majority reported finding new meaning and more value in close, intimate family relationships. In contrast, some participants reported feeling isolated or abandoned because their wider social circles of coworkers and friends had diminished. Another theme was loss of life purpose or meaning. This was particularly significant for those who dealt with physical impairments as a result of the cancer.

However, some used this life change to motivate them to pursue new and different activities and to focus on leaving a legacy. Further, most of the participants reported needed emotional and psychological help after a cancer diagnosis. This finding highlights the need for psychological and mental health professionals in the oncology arena. Van der Spek added, “These results may contribute to develop interventions targeting meaning in life in cancer survivors.”

Van der Spek, N., Vos, J., van Uden-Kraan, C.F., Breitbart, W., Tollenaar, R.A.E.M., et al. (2013). Meaning making in cancer survivors: A focus group study. PLoS ONE 8(9): e76089. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0076089

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  • Luna


    October 17th, 2013 at 12:59 PM

    I think that my mom felt this sense of loss, not knowing how to react to families of those she had met in chemo when their family members passed and she survived it. I really think that she has dealt with an immense sense of guilt wondering why she was the one who has been allowed to beat this thing while there have been others who have fought every bit as hard as she did who have lost the fight.

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