5 Ways to Set Life Goals After Breast Cancer

Your priorities may change following a bout with breast cancer. Here’s how to chart a new course.

Most of us have bucket list items we’re hoping to cross off our lists one day: travel the world, run a marathon, learn to speak French. A cancer diagnosis can turn your goals and dreams upside down.

"After an episode of cancer, [our] idea of mortality can change. We’re more aware of the fragility of life," says Sandra Haber, PhD, a New York City-based psychologist and a co-author of Breast Cancer: A Psychological Treatment Manual. "That may sound bad, but it could actually be good thing.”

Your pre-cancer life goals may no longer match up with what you want to accomplish post-cancer. Some of these changes you may choose; others may be driven by necessity, depending on your physical condition. “I went from competing in triathlons to not being able to walk up a flight of stairs,” says breast cancer survivor Elissa T. Bantug, program manager of the Breast Cancer Survivorship Program at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center. Bantug's cancer experience also steered her toward a new career—one that helped her prioritize caring for her children.

Setting new goals could help you determine how you want to live the rest of your life, says Corinne Leach, PhD, MPH, MS, director of cancer and aging research for the American Cancer Society’s Behavioral Research Center. It may also help you assess where you are mentally and physically, and what it might take to reach your new objectives. “Let’s say there’s a hike you’ve always wanted to take,” she says. “You may need to build up strength to make it up that trail and back, but by setting that goal and the smaller goals that help get you there, you may be more likely to achieve what you want.”

Here’s a helpful guide on how to approach goal setting after breast cancer—and how to help keep yourself motivated to see them through.


1. Reflect on your priorities


You've always said you want visit the pyramids or tour Europe. But do those goals reflect your life right now? For a clearer sense of your current priorities, Dr. Haber recommends making a list of desired changes you've been thinking about lately, whether you're hoping to try a new fitness regimen, become a better cook, or go back to school. Then rate their personal importance on a scale of 1 to 10. Putting a number on something gives it a comparative reality, Dr. Haber explains. This exercise can also help you focus your energy on the goals that matter most.

2. Try setting a stretch goal


Some breast cancer survivors come away with a resiliency that helps prepare them for future challenges. “Many feel stronger after what they’ve gone through, and that’s powerful,” Dr. Leach says. If this describes your experience, Dr. Leach suggests leveraging that feeling to work toward a “stretch” goal—something that will take hard work, dedication, and strategic planning but isn’t impossible. For example, if you enjoy brisk walking for exercise, you might consider dialing things up and training for a 5K fun run. Or if you've always wanted to learn to speak Italian or Mandarin, you might commit to spending an hour each day with a language app.

3. Consider how and when


Managing expectations is a big part of setting realistic goals, says Kathleen Cairns, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and coauthor of The Bald & The Beautiful: Surviving Breast Cancer. Asking yourself how you’ll accomplish each goal nudges you to come up with specifics. If you want to hike three national parks, for example, how will you travel? Which parks will you visit? Detailed questions and answers can help an action plan take shape, Dr. Cairns says.

For goals that require consistency—think: fitness classes or support meetings—your "when" is especially key. "'Someday' isn’t a day of the week," Dr. Haber notes. So be specific about when you'll put the time in. For example, "I will go to a kickboxing class every Monday morning at 8:00" is more likely to yield results than a vague intention to try kickboxing, Dr. Haber says. Anchor some dates on your calendar, and consider enlisting a buddy when appropriate. “We often cancel on ourselves, but we’ll show up for another person,” Dr. Haber explains.

4. Stay flexible

Just as muscles that are too tight restrict movement, too-rigid plans might constrain your dreams. Thinking through possible challenges in advance can help you respond and adapt if those challenges come to pass, Dr. Leach says. For instance, if your schedule gets hectic and you can't do your 5K practice runs after work? Maybe you can shift your practice runs from evening to early morning, before the days get busy. Unexpected events, both big and small, are part of the human experience. “You may have never thought you'd have cancer, but life happened,” says Leach. “It’s how you dealt with that challenge that mattered.”

5. Recognize progress


"Because you've had cancer, you might be more determined to tackle a big list of goals," says Haber. "But trust me, motivation can easily wear thin."

Even if your goals are 100% realistic and attainable, building a sense of progress along the way may be helpful for maintaining your personal drive. 

One small study from Columbia University speaks to the power of noticing progress. In this experiment, 108 cafe customers were divided into two groups. One group received stamp cards with a message of "buy 10 coffees, get one free." The other group received cards with a message of "buy 12, get one free"—only their cards were pre-stamped with two purchases to create an illusion of progress.

Even though both groups had to buy 10 coffees to score a freebie, the volunteers with pre-stamped cards reached the goal three days sooner on average.

As you work toward your own goals, be sure to take a beat to notice smaller wins—such as feeling more energized as a result of that 5K training. That feeling of "I'm getting there!" can help keep you cruising toward the big-picture objectives.

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This article was reviewed for accuracy in October 2021 by Dominique Adair, MS, RD, senior manager of behavior change coaching and experiences at WW. The WW Science Team is a dedicated group of experts who ensure all our solutions are rooted in the best possible research.