A diagnosis of advanced cancer is often the cue for people to search for meaning in life. For some, this may be the first time they are confronted with the thought of death or dying.

People may want to understand their purpose and legacy, to celebrate their life, and look for strength, peace, harmony and comfort. They, and those around them, may change their priorities and think about what they want from life.

This is when spirituality, religion, faith or belief in a greater power comes into play. For some, it is an unstructured approach – spending time with others, basking in memories and reflecting on their experiences. For others, prayer, religious rites and spiritual guidance not only provide comfort and support, but increase their ability to cope with their illness.

What may help

Social and pastoral care

Social and pastoral care workers can offer support, guidance and prayer, and discuss spiritual concerns. Previous involvement, or not, in formal worship is usually unnecessary. Your local hospital or palliative care team, or your local church or religious organisation, should be able to help you find the appropriate people.

Finding meaning

Searching for meaning or finding that one’s life has order and purpose has been shown to influence satisfaction with life and well-being. Every person is different, but some people have found that going through old photos, writing down memories, or leaving a lasting legacy such as a taped or written message for a child, have helped them find peace and comfort. Others may find it useful to re-evaluate their priorities and goals and determine specific strategies to help achieve them.

For more information

  • The Handbook for Mortals, contains a chapter on finding meaning in life.
  • The US National Cancer Institute has information on looking for meaning and celebrating your life.


Life, Hope & Reality was developed and written by Afaf Girgis, Claire Johnson, and Sylvie Lambert with funding from the NHMRC and Cancer Council NSW.

Last updated 30 August 2015