Goals and Cancer

Content created with input from Jessica Antal, MSSW, LCSW

One of the less often discussed ways patients with cancer can be affected by their diagnosis is in their perspectives of the future.

Shot of a happy senior couple going for a relaxing walk in the park

Envisioning the Future

It may be difficult for patients who are in the midst of their cancer journey to see past their immediate to-do lists, filled with doctors’ appointments and treatment schedules, as well as trying to maintain their daily routines as much as possible. However, envisioning their future is an important and natural exercise. Goals may need to be altered or modified, but it is important.

Sometimes cancer’s lasting impact renders a person’s previous life goals unrealistic or unachievable.

For example:

  • A person may not be physically capable of athletic performance or achievement at the same level as before having cancer
  • A career-driven individual may find they don’t value success in this area of their life as much as they once did, or they struggle to invest the effort necessary to advance in their career at their pre-cancer pace
  • For some, cancer or cancer-treatment related effects on fertility can reshape how a person wants or is able to create their desired family

Changes and Grief

This realization may bring a certain amount of grief as patients struggle to understand how their post-cancer-diagnosis self can move forward meaningfully. For ambitious or goal-oriented people, functioning without a north-star goal to guide and direct them leaves them feeling unmotivated and potentially depressed. Conversely, clinging to goals that are too difficult can lead to self-defeating, circular feelings of inadequacy that aren’t healthy for anyone, including cancer survivors.

Moving Forward

After taking stock of their new perspectives, any changes in values or dreams, and accounting for any physical challenges they may now need to navigate, setting goals is important. Taking time to journal, processing any changes in feelings, and working through any disappointment can be helpful. But, making the leap to list the positive things and listing achievements and relationships that still bring meaning. Then, setting reasonable, goals that can be achieved can lead to feelings of success that propel the person forward and can rebuild a hopeful and healthy outlook.

Whether it is just another Monday, a new month, or a new year, our goals can be as big or small and as numerous as we like. In American society, a new year often brings a want or need to create new goals. Obviously, this applies to people who have had a diagnosis of cancer as well.

Examples of these goals can include:

  • Treatment-related goals or milestones if you are focusing on your cancer treatment
  • Getting more organized in your daily life or removing “clutter” in all its forms
  • Trying to live healthier or adopt some new healthy habits or quitting some unhealthy habits

Whatever your goals are for the New Year or a new day, it is important that you follow some guidelines when setting new goals so that you can have success. 


Using the SMART goal technique is one way to make and assess your new goals.  (This technique was originally coined in the world of business, but since the introduction of the concept in the 1980s, it has been successfully applied to any number of venues, including personal development.)

  • S- Specific: What exactly will you accomplish?
  • M-Measurable: How will you know when you have reached the goal?
  • A-Achievable: Is achieving this goal realistic with effort and commitment?  Have you got the resources to achieve this goal?  If not, how will you get them?
  • R-Relevant: Why is this goal significant to your life?
  • T-Timely: When will you achieve this goal?

In addition, you should also answer the following important questions:

Why is this goal important to you?

What are the benefits of achieving this goal?

What are potential obstacles and solutions to these obstacles?

Who are people that you can ask to help you?

It is also a great idea to write these questions and answers down so you can visually glance back at your responses.

Staying Focused

Some people choose to create a vision board. This involves cutting out or drawing visual images of the way you think achieving your goal will look.  For instance, if you have created a goal of being healthier, cutting out images of healthy-looking people or people that are working out or eating right, etc. may keep you inspired.  You can get creative and it can be a fun project. 

Setting goals are a way to get you motivated for change and a way to keep you focused.  Go ahead and try it!

More Information

If you are a cancer patient struggling with your mental health, tell your care team and they can connect you with resources.

Thompson Cancer Survival Center offers free counseling services to patients during treatment. If you are a patient and would like to speak with a counselor, visit https://www.thompsoncancer.com/counseling/ to learn how to schedule an appointment.



GoalSetting.org. What are SMART Goals? https://goalsetting.org/smart-goals/

Psychology Today. What is a Vision Board and Why Make One? https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/click-here-happiness/202103/what-is-vision-board-and-why-make-one#:~:text=What%20Is%20a%20Vision%20Board%3F%20A%20vision%20board,a%20complete%20guide%20on%20how%20to%20manifest%20something%29.

Livestrong. Changing Priorities. https://www.livestrong.org/we-can-help/feelings-emotions/changing-priorities

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