Finding Our Purpose After Cancer

Here are four ways I found purpose in my life after being diagnosed with cancer.

For many, getting told we have cancer is a defining moment. It is the moment when we realize that our lives, indeed, have a defined end. It’s no longer theoretical.

My moment is seared into my memory. A well-meaning gastroenterologist, unable to say the C-word, leaned over the rail of my hospital bed, and said, “I’m sorry you have a malignancy.” before turning and walking out.

Some respond to this moment by sinking into despair or even worse, depression. Others choose to pretend it’s not happening to them. For some, like me, it is a moment when we realize that there is more to life than just living. We set out anew to find our purpose.

Purpose is often summed up by the ageless question, “Why am I here?” Most of us spend our lives chasing after an answer to this question. Some are lucky to find a shadow of an answer. Perhaps we find a cause we believe in to fill out our already chock-full calendars. Sadly, few of us ever find “the answer.” For most, this question becomes an uncrackable riddle as it remains for me.

I wish I could say I understand why I’m here because I don’t. Facing pancreatic cancer ten years ago, with few seeing two years and most not seeing five, I figured I was done. I put my affairs in order and waited to be told, “Sorry, your cancer is back.”

After five years, when it didn’t come back, it dawned on me I might live to tell about it after all.

I began pulling at the tattered corners of the “Why am I here?” question afresh. An attempt at writing a memoir led me into a rather accidental writing career. Despite having written a lot during my business career, for people who had no choice but to read what I wrote, I had never attempted to write for a reader — someone who could toss what I had written into the trashcan without giving it a second thought.

Now having read dozens of writing craft books, I understand how challenging writing for readers can be but at the same time what a joy it can be. As Joan Didion once said, “I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Like most, I want to be able to say my life mattered. Rather than being one of the eight billion or so placeholders on earth, I wanted to be able to say I made a difference.

Like most, I fear many things, but none so vividly as cancer. Its two-syllable sound grates at me like no other. I remember much-loved family members all, friends, all taken too soon with so much yet to do. I am shattered by the ever-so-sad stories I read on Twitter.

Besides writing, I leaned into teaching at a couple of universities, something I had always enjoyed but had considered more of a part-time job than a passion. Realizing I had something to say to young minds who were looking up at their career like Mount Doom made all the difference for me. In teaching, I found a new purpose.

Now, 10 years into my post-cancer journey, my newest undertaking is to be an advocate for those who are stricken with cancer, many of whom are voiceless, unable to push back on the medical system that uses them to generate hefty profits. (By medical system, I am talking about the mega-corporations who place profits over patients rather than the thousands upon thousands of dedicated medical professionals who are selfless to a fault.)

So, what about you? How might you go about finding your purpose after cancer?

Think back to what brought you joy.

Many of us, definitely me, became so involved in our “careers” we lost track of what brought us joy growing up. One of the ways to find our purpose after cancer is to reconnect with our younger selves. Take time to remember what we did before putting a roof over our heads became the focus of who we were. For me, I always wanted to help people but embroiled in a fast-track career, I became self-centered, caring little about those around me.

Get outside yourself.

Even today I struggle with getting outside myself. The daily post-cancer grind of follow-ups with the six specialists I see, fighting with insurance companies to get them to pay for my care, and working to maintain what health I have left is exhausting. But I’ve found when I get outside myself and help others, things change. Even on bone-chilling days, I feel the inner warmth that comes from reaching out to help others.

Wonder what’s possible.

One of the challenges of cancer is the nagging fear it might show up any day like that crazy uncle we thought had lost our address. Every unexplained ache, bruiseor misshaped mole fills us with terror. We must set aside these inner fears, and instead, ask if money or time were unlimited what might we do?

Ask what makes you come alive.

Famed theologian Howard Thurman once said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” There are far more volunteer opportunities than volunteers. It’s always been this way. It’s OK to volunteer to stay busy but it is far better to figure out what makes you come alive and go do that. For me, I despise chaos. Organization is my go-to skill. When I can I step in and help settle matters down so things can get done.

Finding our purpose after cancer is not easy but it is something each of us must do. Ways to find your purpose include thinking back to what brought you joy, getting outside yourself, wondering what’s possible and asking what makes you come alive.


For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.