Finding Meaning For Your Life When You're Stage IV

by Jane Ashley

Patients diagnosed with Stage IV cancer have many questions. Will I die? What’s my prognosis? Will the chemo make me sick? What about pain? Will I be able to work? What if I can’t work? Can I get into a clinical trial?

Finding Meaning For Your Life When You're Stage Iv

Once a patient gets into treatment and the initial shock wears off, it’s common to wonder about and ask, “How do I find meaning and purpose in my life when I don’t know what the outcome is going to be?”

Other questions include, “How do I plan when I don’t even know if I can have chemo next week?” “What about holidays?” “What about my children’s school events if I can’t attend?” There are a thousand “what ifs” to think about.

And amid the turmoil of treatment is the desire to live your life (however long it may be) with meaning and purpose.

The Hollywood Effect

If you watch some of the movies about cancer, you may get the impression that you’ll be doing some extraordinary things. Hollywood’s take on cancer seems to be if you’re dying, then you might as well take incredible risks and “save the world.”

The movies can’t portray the minutes and hours ticking away spent in the chemo chair or the daily grind of driving back and forth for 30 radiation treatments. Hollywood uses cancer as a catalyst for improbable plots.

The diagnosis of Stage IV cancer is no longer a death sentence. It’s a gut-wrenching diagnosis, but we get over the shock, seek the best medical team we can find and live day-by-day in an effort to beat back the beast and live our lives with our cancer being treated as a chronic disease.

Our lives don’t stop with the cancer diagnosis – we just have to add cancer treatments to our schedule. We still have our household to run, our children to care for if they are school age, a job, disability or Social Security for income, yards to mow, meals to cook and clothes to wash.

There is more to life than just maintaining our households and enduring our treatments. So WhatNext?

What We Can Learn from Cancer

Cancer can bring positive changes into our lives. I am reminded of the Tim McGraw song “Live Like You Were Dying.” In the song, he did a couple of bucket list things like skydiving, but more importantly, he endeavored to love more deeply, speak more sweetly and let go of past grudges by granting forgiveness. He acknowledged that tomorrow was a gift.

Just in case you’ve never listened to this song before, you might want to listen to it. Be forewarned, you might need a tissue.

Learn to Live One Day at a Time

Ahh … you might say, “Easier said than done.” And that’s true, but the emotional reward of learning to live day by day is substantial – you will not only find peace of mind but you will find joy and the true meaning of life. Worrying about tomorrow is fruitless when you have cancer – there are always changes – anemia, neutropenia, or low platelets can delay your treatment. A CT scan doesn’t provide definitive information. 

Surgery is delayed because you get a cold.

One of my favorite quotes is from Margaret Millar, “Don’t borrow trouble. The interest is too high.”

Dont Borrow Trouble

15 Ways to Find New Meaning and Purpose in Your Life

We hope that you’ll study this list to help you find a renewed purpose for your life. As you’ll see from our list, small behavior changes can create dramatic transformations.

1. Live in the moment. Today is the only day that anyone can be assured of having. Even today can be cut short by an accident. So enjoy the sunshine or much-needed rain. Kiss your spouse goodnight and really mean it. Carpe diem!

2. Volunteer. Nothing will lift your spirits more than helping others. So if you feel well enough, volunteer. Volunteer one Saturday a month at a soup kitchen. Tutor a deserving student. Bake a cake for a bake sale.

3. Give back. Even if you are stuck at home after chemo or surgery, get active on or an online support board for your specific cancer type, and answer questions. Share your experiences.

4. Use photography to appreciate beauty in your daily life. Many of our phones have outstanding cameras – begin to journal the everyday beauty of flowers, insects and people.

Find Daily Joy

5. Begin the hobby you’ve always put off. Want to paint? Buy a canvas and a set of acrylics and an affordable brush set and paint – trust me, it takes your mind off everything. Taking a knitting class and donate beanies to your cancer center.

6. Start walking. Walking is one of the most perfect exercises known to mankind. No equipment needed, just a pair of comfortable walking shoes (you can wear to chemo too).

7. Read a book. You’ve been promising yourself that you’re going to start reading again. Take a book to chemo. Buy a Kindle and carry in your purse or satchel. Got five minutes? Read.

Start Reading Again

8. Continue to work, even part-time, if you are able. I asked my oncologist about working, and she said, “Yes. Work will keep your mind occupied.”

9. Be there for your school-age children. Be the mother or father that you want to be. Your actions teach them important life lessons without you saying a single word. Use a scooter if you must, but go to the zoo, take them fishing, play paper dolls.

Spend Time With Your Children

10. Surround yourself with positive people. Distance yourself from the people who are negative; ignore the naysayers. You will find encouragement from the people you least expect sometimes. Positive people bring hope and courage.

11. Continue to make goals. You may ask, “How can I make goals when I’m Stage IV?” What if you live? Make goals, both small and large. Never lose sight of the fact that Stage IV patients become NED (No Evidence of Disease) and have long-term remissions.

12. You have the opportunity to make things right. Being Stage IV gives us the opportunity to say, “I’m sorry.” The person who slumps over dead at the dinner table never had the chance to say “I’m sorry” or “Goodbye.”

13. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t have a huge bucket list. Many patients feel that they are not accomplishing enough. Cancer treatment is expensive and exhausting – so don’t worry if your list doesn’t include unrealistic dreams.

14. Write a book; start a blog. Writing is therapeutic. It helps us clarify our feelings and emotions and can help us see the big picture. Publishing on Amazon is relatively easy, completely free and offers you a chance to “give back” through sharing your experiences. Create a blog to communicate with your family and friends.

15. Write letters to your small children for future birthdays. This is just in case – share your hopes and dreams with them so that they will always carry in their heart that you loved them every day.

Life is a gift. Don’t put it up on the top shelf, unused like the Sunday china, because it’s too good to use. Life is meant to be lived every day. Use your life; live it purposefully and with gratitude. Look for joy – remember that we usually find for we are looking for – when we look up, we see full moons, stars, sunshine and spectacular sunrises and sunsets. Make the most out of the day we have.

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