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Cancer Survivors Discover Personal Growth

By Kathryn Johnson, PhD, Providence Regional Cancer Partnership

Cancer changes you. That’s an understatement, isn’t it? Along with physical changes – like surgical scars or lingering after-effects – there are emotional and spiritual changes. The journey of a person with cancer is often compared to the archetypal “hero’s journey,” where the main character in a story overcomes huge challenges to attain life-changing gifts. It’s in those life-changing gifts – those emotional and spiritual changes – where cancer survivors often find new possibilities and new meaning in life. We call it “post-traumatic growth.”

Common Areas of Post-traumatic Growth

Obviously, few of us would choose a traumatic event as an avenue for growth. But, when faced with the struggle to make sense of a cancer diagnosis, people are forced to question their fundamental assumptions about the world. And, often, they do discover new life-changing gifts of personal growth, including:

New possibilities for life. Cancer survivors often set new goals and priorities. They feel more strongly about believing and investing in themselves and others. They have a new commitment to their physical health. They work on checking things off their bucket list. They understand they can’t assume the future they planned on will be there.

Relating to others. Surviving cancer gives a whole new meaning to “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Many cancer survivors no longer get bogged down in petty personal squabbles. Rather, they choose to focus on improving personal relationships and having greater empathy for others.

Recognizing personal strengths. Traumatic experiences really can make a person stronger. Cancer survivors prove again and again that personal growth, resilience and the power to overcome difficult circumstances are possible and probable. Sometimes, surviving cancer makes a person recognize they have the strength to leave a stressful job or a bad relationship to chart a new and more fulfilling course.

Greater appreciation for life. Facing cancer means facing one’s own mortality. Surviving cancer provides a new perspective and greater appreciation for life. Someone who previously contemplated suicide might now value and celebrate the gift of life every second of every day.

Deepening/change in spiritual life. The cancer journey can be frightening and chaotic. Many cancer survivors find peace and hope in a deeper spiritual life. They have a spiritual awakening and this continues as they contemplate their life and what comes next.

Continuing to Foster Growth in the Future

Carl Jung said: “I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” Everyone who endures psychological trauma has the potential for post-traumatic growth. We have opportunities to be kind, patient, hopeful and generous to ourselves and others during and after difficult times in our life. Here are some ways to continue to foster growth in your own life: talk with caring people, meditate, exercise, get adequate rest, practice positive self-talk, dream, have fun, play, be creative, nurture friendships, get a massage, enjoy a sunset, visualize success, read an inspirational book, set healthy boundaries, be authentic and get what you need.

Survivorship Classes Help You on Your Continuing Journey

Learn more about survivorship classes in your area:

Burbank, California
Western Montana
Eastern Washington (greater Spokane area)
Northwest Washington (greater Everett area)
Southwest Washington (Aberdeen, Centralia and Olympia)


Kathryn Johnson, PhD, has been with the Everett Clinic for 10 years. She’s been part of the Providence Regional Cancer Partnership since 2007. Before the center opened, she worked for two years on a committee tasked with developing the center’s programs – including the eight-week cancer survivorship class series. She’s a Seattle native and earned her master’s in art therapy from The George Washington University and her doctorate in clinical psychology from Seattle Pacific University. In addition to her work at the Providence Regional Cancer Partnership, Kathryn provides counseling for adolescents and adults, and conducts psychological testing. She specializes in geriatric mental health, grief and loss, adjustment to medical illness, post-abuse syndromes and depression.


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