International Journal of Existential Positive Psychology

The Quest for Meaning in Life in Six Patients Living with Advanced Cancer: A Qualitative Longitudinal Study

Geok Ling Lee, Ph.D

Associate Professor, Department of Social Work, National University of Singapore


In this study, six individuals who were diagnosed with advanced cancer and who received home hospice care described how they found and made meaning in times of struggle with their illness—what troubled them, what made life worth living for them, how they grew spiritually in their journey, and how they strove to live authentically as they faced impending death. Their descriptions are part of a broader phenomenological inquiry on the experience of living with advanced cancer and on the changing needs and experiences over time as their health condition deteriorated. Serial, semistructured individual interviews were conducted at three different time points: onset of illness, deterioration of illness, and days before death. Despite the small sample size, the data analysed suggests that meaning making is a dynamic process, which can evolve with changes in needs and life experiences as a person’s health condition deteriorates. Themes that emerged in relation to meaning in life reflect struggle—with self, with significant others, and with God or Higher Power, and between the desire to live and the readiness to die. One conclusion suggested from the data is that the (new) meanings in life made and found by dying patients have a tremendous impact on how they eventually face death. This gives a framework for clinicians to intervene and do grief work that helps patients process and integrate the meaning of illness so that they can ‘live well’ and that at the same time validates the need to ‘die well’.

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