Your Cancer Guide
Ways to Find Meaning in Life
A cancer diagnosis can prompt survivors to question or deepen their faith.
By Hester Hill Schnipper
Cancer comes differently to each of us. Whether it announces its presence with a whisper or a roar, it changes our lives in a moment. Forever after, there is a line of demarcation, a before and an after. But always, cancer reminds us of our mortality.
Whatever our beliefs about life and death may have been before diagnosis, cancer often moves us to contemplate how best to live and what our lives really mean. The beliefs that help sustain us, especially in difficult times, are often summed up in the word “faith.”
Many people sustain their faith throughout their lives, while others shift in and out of traditions and beliefs. In a time of existential crisis, a longing for something lost or not yet found is a common reaction. All of us are searching for meaning.
My experience over decades of working with cancer patients has been that those who have faith, whatever that faith may be, have an easier time dealing with serious illness and confronting death than those who don’t. To be clear, you do not need to be a part of an organized religion to reap these benefits; an atheist or an agnostic who has pondered life’s meaning can be just as comfortable as a lifelong temple, mosque or church member.
These exercises may help you find your spiritual footing:
1) Consider speaking with a member of the clergy or a religious teacher. This person does not need to be a member of your previous or current faith group. If you don’t already have a formal religious connection, attend services at different houses of worship to see if one speaks to you.
2) Read whatever inspires you, whether fiction, plays, philosophy or religious texts. Throughout time, wise people have written about faith, fear and meaning. Their insights may help you.
3) Enjoy great art and listen to music. Be open to what you feel.
4) Meditate. Try to be present in the moment. Think “I am here.”
5) Remember moments when someone has been with you in a fully present, loving and accepting way.
6) Get outside. If you can, lie on your back and look at the stars. Walk in the woods, along the shore or in any beautiful place. There is great solace in the natural world. The more we can feel part of the rhythm and cycles of life, the more peaceful we will be.
7) Remember the proverb: I said to the almond tree, “Sister, speak to me of God.” And the almond tree blossomed.
HESTER HILL SCHNIPPER, a licensed independent clinical social worker, is a breast cancer survivor and the manager of oncology social work at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. She also writes a blog, Living With Breast Cancer, for the hospital’s website.