What is truly important in life?

A cancer diagnosis is one of the most difficult challenges in the lives of those who experience it. It's a big shock to all aspects of our lives - physiological, psychological and social. Cancer makes the terminality of life brutally realistic and triggers multiple concerns related to the meaning of life.

It is common for cancer patients to feel the need to re-examine previous choices and reprioritise what used to be important in life before cancer. And rightfully so, because we have multiple research showing the benefits of a stronger, more inspiring and authentic sense of meaning for cancer patients. We see that therapeutic interventions that target the spiritual wellbeing and meaning-making of cancer patients help them reduce the feelings of distress, depression, and anxiety. So why not use cancer as an opportunity to reevaluate former priorities and rediscover what truly matters in life? 

Although what makes a meaningful life differs for each person, one of the most accepted scholarly definitions proposes that the three primary components of meaning in life are:
  • Coherence/comprehension
  • Purpose
  • Significance/existential mattering 

In other words, “lives may be experienced as meaningful when they are felt to have significance beyond the trivial or momentary, to have a purpose, or to have a coherence that transcends chaos.” (Source: King, L.A.; Hicks, J.A.; Krull, J.L.; Del Gaiso, A.K. Positive affect and the experience of meaning in life. J. Personal. Soc. Psychol. 2006, 90, 179–196). Another important aspect of meaning is responsibility: not just thinking and feeling, but also acting and behaving according to one’s values and sense of purpose. 

Where do you start your search for meaning? One source of meaning that has been consistently found to contribute to our lives is the quality and strength of personal relationships. The commitment to spend more time with family and friends is at the forefront of the experience of meaningfulness. People who have one or more close relationships tend to be happier, more satisfied with life and emotionally resilient. Other areas that were proven to bring us more meaning in life are personal growth, creative expression and a sense of achievement. 

If you would like to read more about the discovery of meaning, below is a list of most important books written on this topic:
  • Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
  • Becoming Myself by Irvin Yalom
  • On Human Freedom by Epictetus 

Cancer may have shaken your personal identity, the whole belief system and called the purpose of your life into question. But apart from the negative consequences of cancer, it can be a source of increased personal strength, enhanced life appreciation, new possibilities, reevaluation of former priorities, closer relationships with others, and positive spiritual change. It's all a matter of perspective...