Get The (Post Cancer) Life You Want

Your priorities may change after you’ve beaten 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. But a cancer diagnosis can turn your goals and dreams upside down.

“Most of us feel like we will live forever,” says Sandra Haber, PhD., a New York City-based psychologist and a co-author of Breast Cancer: A Psychological Treatment Manual. “But after an episode of cancer, that idea of mortality can change. We’re more aware of the fragility of life. 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 Elissa T. Bantug, breast cancer survivor and program manager of the Breast Cancer Survivorship Program at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center. Perhaps more important: While her friends were pursuing more lucrative jobs, her outlook changed, which led her toward a different post-treatment 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.

First, Prioritize
It’s easy to say you want to visit the pyramids or tour Europe. But what do you really want to do? To reveal your true priorities, says Haber, make a list of what’s important to you—losing weight, going back to school, changing jobs—and rate them on a scale of 1 to 10. Putting a number on something gives it a comparative reality, she explains. The list also helps give you a path for tackling one item at a time.

Then, Ask Yourself, “How?”
Managing expectations is a huge 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 forces you to consider the specifics. If you want to visit three national parks, for example, how will you do it? Which ones will you visit? When will you go? Which hotels will you book? Detailed questions and answers may help fuel a plan, Cairns notes.

Keep a Calendar 
“’Someday’ isn’t a day of the week,” remarks Haber. For goals that require daily or weekly consistency – like fitness classes or support meetings — always include the when and where with the what. Declaring, “I will go to Monday’s 8 a.m. Spin class” makes it much more likely to happen, says Haber. Anchor some dates on your calendar—and to help make yourself more accountable, get a buddy on board. “We often cancel on ourselves, but we’ll show up for another person,” she explains. Plus, who doesn’t love decorating a wall calendar with dozens of fun events?

Celebrate to Keep Pushing 
“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.” That’s why you need to pause often and celebrate your accomplishments with a small reward. 

Preliminary research from Columbia University shows that people may be motivated to reach goals faster if they have a feeling of progress. When 108 customers at Columbia University cafes participating in the study were given either a standard “buy 10 coffees, get one coffee free” card or a “buy 12 coffees, get one coffee free” card with two stamps already on the card, the “buy 12” folks reached their free coffee 3 days faster. So if you’re striving to lose weight, for example, buy yourself a new blouse when you’ve lost five pounds. It may be too big for you in a few months, but you’ll reinforce today how far you’ve already come.

Create “Stretch” Goals 
Cancer survivors have a resiliency that helps prepare them for future challenges, says Leach. “Many women feel stronger after what they’ve gone through—and that’s powerful.” She suggests using your experience as a bridge to even more successes by picking a “stretch” goal—something that will take some hard work, dedication, and strategic planning but isn’t impossible. Some examples: a half marathon if you’re a recreational runner or a novel a week for a year if you’re a bookworm.

Be Flexible 
Just as muscles that are too tight restrict movement, too-rigid plans might constrain your dreams. That’s why it’s important to identify challenges that can pop up and interfere with your reaching your goals. Case in point: If financial problems present themselves while you’re planning a cross-country trip, will you push the trip back or give it up entirely? “You may have never thought you'd have cancer, but life happened,” says Leach. “It’s how you dealt with that challenge that mattered.” Use that experience and mindset to build flexibility into your future plans, too.

Find out how to thrive in your new reality here.