Positive Changes After a Diagnosis of Cancer

Post-Traumatic Growth in People With Cancer

Have you heard anyone say that they are a better person or enjoy life more since being diagnosed with cancer? Research tells us that most people experience positive changes in their life, or what has been coined "posttraumatic growth." These often include a renewed appreciation for life, greater compassion for others, enriched relationships, a deepening of spirituality, a re-aligning of priorities, and more.

Many words and phrases have been used to describe these changes after cancer, such as:

  • Silver linings
  • The benefits of cancer
  • "What cancer has taught me"
  • Meaning making, sense-making, or benefit finding
  • Life transforming changes
  • The blessings of cancer, or even
  • The gift of cancer

Certainly, nobody would go through cancer by choice, but for the 14.5 million (and growing) people in the U.S. who have experienced the threat to life that is cancer, it may be of some consolation to know that very often, there really are silver linings.

While not everyone who develops cancer experiences positive personal growth, roughly one-half to two-thirds of survivors admit to some positive changes. Usually, people can find more positive change the longer it has been since their diagnosis. For purposes of this article, we will use the most common definition of a cancer survivor. A cancer survivor is anyone with cancer, from the day they are diagnosed, and through the rest of their lives.

Posttraumatic growth occurs in many situations which are life-threatening or bring great stress, including cancer. Studies have found evidence of personal growth in people with all types of cancer and all stages of the disease, though the extent and type of change is unique to each person. While the term posttraumatic growth is relatively new, the concept of suffering leading to transformation goes back to the beginning of the written word and is spoken of in most of the great religions of the world.

As we describe several types of positive changes that have been noted in research, think about how cancer has touched your life or that of a loved one. After discussing what the studies tell us, we will take a look at some of these changes in the words of cancer survivors, followed by tips on promoting your own posttraumatic growth.


Appreciation for Life

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Most studies on posttraumatic growth in cancer patients have found a renewed appreciation of life to be one of the most common silver linings. It can be difficult to describe this feeling to someone who has not lived with cancer (or any other similarly stressful or life-threatening condition).

What Does it Mean To Have a Renewed Appreciation for Life?

It is the look in the eyes of people at the annual LUNGevity HOPE Summit—many who have never met another lung cancer survivor—now in a room literally full of lung cancer survivors. And of these survivors, knowing many are present only because of advances in cancer treatment that have taken place in just the past year or two.

It is what we see in the unhindered joy of a two-year-old seeing a new bird, or the ocean, or even a ladybug for the first time. That kind of child-like awe and wonder.

Lung cancer survivor Jim Morrison captures this newborn appreciation for life beautifully in his book To See Another Sunrise. The sunrise welcoming in a new day is but one aspect of life that is no longer taken for granted after cancer.

Why don't we appreciate life to this degree before cancer? Well, some fortunate people do. But many of us see a little less clearly because some of our focus is directed towards the past or directed towards the future. With cancer, people can often live more easily in the moment. Why? There is the unspoken thought that this moment may be all we have.


Enriched Relationships

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There is one thing that doesn't change with a diagnosis of cancer, that being that there will be change. People that were once casual acquaintances may become your most deeply trusted friends, while some of your previously close friendships may fade away. Good relationships are strengthened, and poor relationships are let go.


Among relationships that are strengthened, cancer survivors often feel a greater emotional connection. Cancer provides a unique opportunity to be vulnerable and express deeper feelings. This openness can lead to warmer, more intimate friendships.


The deepening of relationships that is common among cancer survivors goes in both directions. Many people with cancer realize—sometimes for the very first time—how important they are to others, and how much their friends and loved ones truly care. At the same time, cancer survivors often develop greater empathy, leading to their loved ones feeling more loved and cared for as well.

It's important to point out that positive growth is not the same as having a positive attitude. In fact, depth in relationships is often seen in the ability to openly express the negative emotions that go along with a diagnosis of cancer.


Compassion for Others

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 "I wouldn't wish cancer on anyone, but looking back, there are ways that I'm a better person than if I'd never had cancer."  - Anonymous

Both empathy, the ability to step into another's shoes, and compassion, the heartfelt caring for another, are common among people who have experienced cancer.

Even if you were compassionate and an empath before your diagnosis, personally experiencing the stress of cancer may heighten your awareness of the trials another may be going through. When you realize that many of the trials you are facing with cancer aren't clearly visible on the outside, it's easier to see other people who appear normal on the outside may be facing deep emotional struggles.

If you haven't noted an obvious increase in your sense of compassion, you may still identify with some of the stories of increased empathy that are common among survivors. Things such as TV commercials showing hungry children leading to an hour of tears.

Thankfully this silver lining is one that keeps on giving. A great way to cope with the anxiety and uncertainty that goes along with "scanxiety" and fear of recurrence is to reach out to help others coping with cancer. When asked what most helped the most for many people coping with cancer, is the "opportunity" to assist others facing similar or even more difficult challenges.



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A diagnosis of cancer forces survivors to develop problem-solving skills and coping strategies unlike anything they've faced before. Cancer is a crash course in navigation that starts with on-the-job immersion training the day you are diagnosed, and requires charting a sometimes erratic course through treatments and specialists.  

It's a blessing that for many cancer survivors, these newly developed and honed skills can be helpful in facing challenges unrelated to cancer as well. Studies tell us that the skills gained in navigating cancer carry through to other parts of our lives. The resourcefulness that is a by-product of negotiating your way through treatment can help in managing normal life hurdles from preparing a new recipe, to helping your child choose a college. And the coping skills that come from living even a short while with cancer? They are something most of us can benefit from each and every day.

study link


Strength and Humility

Woman flexing her arms
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There's a T-shirt that proclaims: "You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have." Not everyone with cancer would go so far as Nietzsche did in saying, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," but many cancer survivors speak of finding "hidden strength" they didn't know they had prior to their diagnosis.

This sense of strength comes with humility—understanding your own limitations, and a greater acceptance of your vulnerability. In other words, most cancer survivors wouldn't consider posing as Popeye. What we often see is a quiet strength—a strength that not only helps survivors cope in other areas of life requiring humble strength, but casts a welcoming and supportive impression to newly diagnosed cancer patients who meet them. In fact, in addition to granting the feeling that "you are not alone," this is likely one of the benefits of cancer support groups.


Wisdom and Priorities

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Many people note a profound change in priorities following a diagnosis of cancer. Items that were once delegated to "someday" are transferred from the bottom of the list to the top. Previously urgent activities, seem less urgent. And moderately important activities? They may be eliminated completely.

Changes in Priorities is Often Lasting

This change in priorities is not just a temporary change in rank of daily activities due to treatment schedules, but is instead, often, a lasting change in life philosophy. What is important before cancer is different from what is important after cancer.

Work-life balance changes for many people living with cancer. At first, some of the changes may be necessary because of treatment, but lasting changes stem from a change in priorities. If you have been working 60-hour work weeks telling your family you will cut back on work and spend more time with family "someday," that someday may be now. This is true not just for people with advanced cancers with an uncertain survival, but for many people with early-stage cancers as well.

One less-than-obvious benefit of prioritizing as a "benefit" of cancer is that many survivors are able to release long-standing grudges and resentments. It's not just a desire to restore peace, but as one cancer survivor said: "I realized how much time it takes to hold and maintain a grudge against my mother, and I no longer want to waste that time and energy."

Of course, not all resentments are resolved, and learning to let go to live well with cancer is an ongoing exercise for anyone who interacts with other less-than-perfect humans. Sometimes the willingness to release a grudge, combined with the desire to be good to yourself, means letting go of relationships that bring you harm.


Health Consciousness and Self Care

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Studies tell us that a common positive change in cancer survivors is a desire to be more health conscious. Perhaps it is the realization that we aren't immune to cancer, or a desire to prolong life or lower the risk of recurrence, but many survivors adopt a healthy diet and try to increase their daily exercise (within the confines of treatment).

An increase in physical health consciousness is common, but many survivors also report an increased awareness of emotional health as well. Important relationships are nurtured, and negative relationships are evaluated.

Responding to many survivor's desire to incorporate mind-body therapies into their healing process, many cancer centers now provide integrative cancer treatments such as meditation, massage therapy, yoga, and acupuncture, and creative outlets, such as art therapy.


New Possiblities

Open door
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The "silver lining" of new possibilities may not be intuitive. Why would a diagnosis of cancer—especially if it's a cancer with a poor prognosis—be a window or door to new possibilities? If you're having a hard time picturing cancer this way, ask yourself: "Is there anyone you would not have met if you didn't have cancer? Is there any place you would not have gone if you did not have cancer? Are there any new activities you would not have tried if you did not have cancer?"

Most of us meet new people during our cancer journey. It may be at the cancer clinic or in a support group. It may be neighbors or casual acquaintances who seem to come out of the woodwork, often because they or a loved one have experienced cancer. It may be simply that the role you play in your family changes.

When you meet new people, you meet people who enjoy different experiences, and this opens up new possibilities.

Certainly, early on the new activities and experiences of cancer treatment are something you could live without. Yet even during treatment survivors often begin—or finally get to—activities they enjoy. It may be that now you are reading those novels you always wished you had time to read.

As time goes on, and with your priority list having changed, you may be looking at items on your bucket list—that dream list of things you've always hoped to do before you die. Why wait?

What have you always wanted to do? Play the piano? Learn to play golf? Travel?

Many people with cancer understand the benefits of a bucket list. If you haven't started one, today is a good day to begin. And keep in mind: if you get to the end of your bucket list, you can always start a new one.


Deepening Spirituality

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An increased depth of spirituality is very common among people living with cancer, though many people wonder exactly what this means.

The National Cancer Society defines spirituality as a person's belief about the meaning of life. For some people, spirituality is expressed through organized religion, for others, this dimension is experienced through the arts, communing with nature, or quiet meditation. 

For those with religious faith, this faith often deepens during treatment. For those who express their spirituality through the arts, they often feel more connected to others who express themselves in this way. For those who love nature, the depth of feeling during a walk in the woods may increase.

It's not that spirituality isn't present for people before cancer. Rather, the "wake-up" call of cancer may be the push that results in life values and life activities becoming more closely intertwined

As an added benefit to this "benefit," spirituality may even play a role in cancer outcome according to a few small studies.


Finding Benefits in Your Own Cancer Journey

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You may have identified with some of the research on posttraumatic stress, or perhaps you saw yourself in some of the stories from other cancer survivors who have found silver linings in their journeys. Thankfully studies are also looking at ways that people can maximize their personal growth through their cancer journey. On the other hand, you may be feeling discouraged, and may not even want to think about anything that could be positive about having cancer.

Here are some ideas on finding and growing the positives:

  • Continue to look for the silver linings. Some people with cancer don't realize the positive changes that have taken place until they take a close look. Consider journaling your cancer journey. You may wish to ask your loved ones how they have seen you grow since your diagnosis.
  • Check out these tips for savoring your life and for learning to savor the moment.
  • Think about how your most important relationships have improved over the course of your cancer journey thus far. Talk to those people about your feelings.
  • Think of something you would do now that you wouldn't have considered doing before cancer. Or, think of someone you had the chance to meet that you otherwise would not likely have met.
  • Are there things that are more important or less important to you now since you were diagnosed?
  • Becoming more health conscious is not only empowering but may reduce the risk of recurrence for some cancers. Check out the American Institute for Cancer Research Guidelines for Cancer Survivors.
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