Finding Meaning in the Cancer Journey: How Nurses Can Help

Getting a cancProfile-Photoer diagnosis can be a devastating life-changing event. Interestingly, when I talk to cancer survivors, many of them say they would not change their circumstances and the fact that they had cancer. Many have told me that cancer was a great teacher that helped them remember what is most important in life. Patricia Greer, author of Breast Cancer: A Soul Journey, believes that “although getting a diagnosis of cancer can feel as if life has been ripped apart, such a rupture can open the way to inner growth, to greater self-awareness and authenticity, to deeper spirituality, creativity, and joy.”

Many cancer survivors I have cared for have made radical changes in their lives after their treatment. Examples include leaving a job or relationship that was not making them happy or taking a chance and doing something they have been afraid to do.

While some people who receive a cancer diagnosis are able to find meaning in their illness and see it as a gift, others do not. Many wonder things like: “Why did this happen to me? I don’t deserve this.” “Am I being punished for something? Why do I have to go through this?” It can be very challenging to make sense of what is happening to us during a serious illness.

To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.
Friedrich Nietzsche

When listening to a recent episode of the “Here and Now” podcast, Ram Dass speaks about certain events in one’s life, such as a serious illness, breaking down all of their systems so they are forced to find the “spark” within. Ram Dass says “suffering is grace” and that it can be a vehicle for awakening.

Ram Dass Podcast

Ongoing studies at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center are exploring how a type of counseling called “Individual Meaning Centered Psychotherapy” can teach cancer patients how to maintain or even increase a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, despite cancer.

Click here to find out more


How can nurses help their patients find meaning during their cancer experience?


As nurses we are typically very busy multi-tasking and always thinking about the next thing we have to do. When caring for cancer patients, it is important to be in the present moment with our patients. Letting go of our to do list and taking a few moments to put ourselves in their shoes. Hold their hand, look into their eyes, and “see” them not just as a patient but a whole person in mind, body, and spirit.


Writing in a journal is an effective way to help one explore the many emotions and thoughts triggered by a cancer diagnosis. David Simon, MD, former medical director of the Chopra Center for Well Being, believed that creating meaning is a human need that must be fulfilled in order for us to continue on our path. He suggested asking questions to help unveil the deeper significance of illness. The exercise below is from his book Return to Wholeness: Embracing Body, Mind, and Spirit in the Face of Cancer.

Instruct your patients to designate a time to focus on the questions, ensuring they will not be interrupted or disturbed. They can begin this process with 10 minutes of meditation, allowing mental turbulence to subside.  When they are ready to listen to their innermost voice, instruct them to ask the following questions and write the answers in their journal.

1.) If I knew I had only one more year to live, what changes would I make in my life right now?
2.) If I were able to speak directly to my cancer, what positive message would it have for me?
3.) Imagining that it is five years from now and my illness is behind me, what would I tell someone else in my situation about the meaning of my illness?
4.) If I were able to speak directly to my God, what would he or she say to me about the meaning of my illness?


Many cancer centers offer classes. If not, click links below to find support in your area.

Art Therapy Association

American Music Therapy Association

American Dance Therapy Association


Refer patients to a support group, an organization like CanCare, or introduce them to a cancer survivor who you think may be an inspiration.

Suggest cancer survivors help others who have had cancer.

Teach patients to be kind to themselves and allow themselves to feel and experience the full range of feelings that come to the surface.


Some survivors say their cancer gave them a “wakeup call” and a second chance to make life what they want it to be.

Ask your patients to think about the following questions?

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?


Refer them to a yoga studio that specialized in yoga for cancer

Teach them some yogic tools yourself if you have trained in Yoganursing®. Learn more at the:

YogaNurse Academy

Coping strategies and mindfulness practices can help patients with cancer find meaning in their illness while learning to build resiliency within their inner spirit. Meditation helps to focus and center your thoughts and gain perspective.


Recommend that your patient speak to a member of the clergy or seek other spiritual support.
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. Most spiritual leaders have been trained in counseling people with major illnesses.


Here are some titles to get you started:

Enjoy Every Sandwich: Living Each Day as If It Were Your Last by Lee Lipsenthal

Breast Cancer: A Soul Journey by Patricia Greer

Return to Wholeness: Embracing Body, Mind, and Spirit in the Face of Cancer by David Simon

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frankl

Making Friends with Cancer by Dawn Nelson


I came across this poem a few years ago that I have printed out and shared with many of my cancer patients:

Making Friends with Cancer
by Dawn Nelson

You make friends with cancer by heeding its call to consciousness, by letting it change your life. You slow down. You pay attention. You stop doing things you don’t really want or need to do. You prioritize. You pace yourself. You respect your body. You spend time with those whose presence is healing.
You make friends with cancer by noticing the small miracles that occur daily–the chorus of bird songs in the morning air, the intoxicating fragrance of one pink rose, the melody of raindrops, the heart melting sweetness of your children’s smiles, the eternality of an ocean wave, the exquisite beauty of a setting sun, the presence of your beloved–which, before cancer, you may have overlooked or been to “busy” to enjoy or appreciate.
You make friends with cancer by letting love in. You open your heart. You tell the truth. You ask for help. You accept the profound generosity of friends. You let whatever you may have given return itself to you.
You make friends with cancer by allowing it to remind you of what is actually important in life and what is less so, by forging a relationship with it that fosters new insight, by seeing the uninvited guest as an opportunity for learning and growth.
You make friends with cancer by accepting the myriad of gifts and joys which life offers. You don’t waste time complaining about things you cannot change or which you wish were different. You dance when you can, you weep when you must. You notice what you have instead of what you don’t have. You practice thankfulness, and forgiveness.
You make friends with cancer by not hiding from it or hating it, but by acknowledging it, accepting what it has to teach you and continuing on your Journey, one step at a time.

If you have any other ideas or resources that may aid nurses in helping their patients find meaning in their cancer diagnosis or illness, please share in the comments below.


6 Comments on “Finding Meaning in the Cancer Journey: How Nurses Can Help

  1. Hi Angela,

    Love how you have shared all of these resources with the reader- especially the holistic information. Sharing resources, support and information is always a way to make the unknown a little more do-able. Thanks for a great post!


    • Thanks Elizabeth. I agree nurses can help facilitate this process by sharing knowledge and resources with their patients.

  2. What a tremendously helpful post you have written here Angela! You write from conscious awareness and offer your ample experience PLUS all the resources are a boon. I had the good fortune to study personally with Dr. David Simon many years ago before he passed away. His book, ‘Return to Wholeness’ is the best integrative medical and spiritual approach I have ever read. Do share this far and wide in other social media. Thank you for your contribution.

    • Thank you Annette! “Return to Wholeness” is a great book. I always include it when recommending reading to patients. How wonderful you got to study with Dr. David Simon!

  3. Great Post! 🙂 Reminds me of a cancer patient I had when I was a student nurse. Being fresh out of high school, I was not used to seeing such sickly people so I was taken aback by her appearance – she was coming in that morning to have her other leg amputated (gangrene) – I know the journey was difficult for her but she had so much courage and strength – she must have caught a distressed look on my face because she smiled and said “Don’t worry dear, it’s just a body. I’m made up of much more than this flimsy thing.”

    After the op, she made do with whatever was left of her body. She barely ever asked for help and somehow she seemed to do better than the patients who had all limbs in tact. She kept a smile on her face, had an incredible sense of humor and she ended up comforting the nurses who were feeling sadness for her.

    She is one of the most graceful patients I’ve had the honor of serving – I use that term loosely because it was more like she served me. It humbled and touched me to witness her amazing strength. It was the first time I processed the concept that we can still be peaceful, have hope and be happy even in the darkest of times.

    • What a great story Kady! Thanks for sharing. It is amazing how much we remember and learn from our patients.

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