The concept that suffering can be a source of positive personal change has deep roots in many ancient thoughts and traditions. But scientific research trying to explain it is quite new. Studies show that after a traumatic event, reports of personal growth are more common than those of psychiatric disorders.
Some people may find, after enough time has passed, that living through or with cancer has helped them to make some positive changes in their lives. The positive life changes that develop as a result of a stressful, frightening experience are called “post-traumatic growth.” Researchers note that post-traumatic growth is not the same as resilience. Resilience describes people "bouncing back" or returning to their previous levels of functioning. On the other hand, post-traumatic growth refers to positive personal change of some kind.
Types of personal growth
People may experience different types of change while coping with cancer, including:
Improved relations with others. Living with cancer may increase feelings of closeness or intimacy with family or friends. It may make it easier to connect with others who have had a traumatic event.
New life experiences. Having cancer may change your priorities, causing you to make different life choices. You may be motivated to make a career change, overcome a fear, or fulfill a life goal.
A greater appreciation for life. A cancer survivor may have an increased regard for life’s value or a new sense of vulnerability to death. This awareness may help you appreciate the world in new ways.
A sense of personal strength. Living with cancer can help you develop increased mental strength and a sense of empowerment. You can be proud of what you have accomplished.
Spiritual development. Some people living with cancer find they gain an increased interest in practicing religion or adding spiritual depth to their daily lives.
Having post-traumatic growth does not mean that you have completely overcome the stress and other feelings about having cancer. Growth and suffering can happen at the same time. In fact, most people who report post-traumatic growth also report having struggles. A person may grow in one area of their life and not another, or in a number of areas at different times.
Post-traumatic growth, like post-traumatic stress, is not universal. Research shows that some people are more likely than others to have this experience. Those who are generally open to new experiences and who sustain a mostly cheerful outlook may be more likely to benefit. It may also help to be able to handle trauma, have a strong support network, and be adaptable to life’s challenges.
Encouraging personal growth
To foster personal growth in response to the challenges of living with cancer, consider the following:
Reduce anxiety. Find ways to minimize your anxiety and tension, such as using relaxation techniques, exercising regularly, or talking with supportive friends.
Reflect on your experience. Journaling or talking with a friend or family member are ways to process and make sense of a traumatic event.
Restore a sense of safety. To feel safer, some people may need to talk with a mental health worker, such as a counselor. Others may find security by talking to a chaplain or spiritual advisor.
Connect with others. Talking with a group of people who have had similar paths can help you look at your cancer journey in a new way. Learn more about support groups.
Create a post-trauma life vision. Think through what you have learned from your experience. Then think about how to put a plan in place for living more fully.
UNC Charlotte Department of Psychology: What is Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG)?
National Cancer Institute: Facing Forward—Life After Cancer Treatment