Learning Elements of Meaningful Life Therapy and Living Well With Illness – a snapshot

Dr. Itami would meet with his patients once a month, as a study group, to discuss and apply ideas he considered helpful to his patients. Each meeting opened with a “humour speech.” Everyone, including Dr. Itami would go around the room and tell a funny story, preferably one at their own expense. Something funny or ironic about the actual condition each person found themselves in.


When I explained this to my 88 year old Mother at the time of my diagnosis, eliciting her help in finding humour, she was appalled. “How on earth do you expect me to find something funny about your cancer diagnosis?” But guess what; the very next day I received a phone call from my Mother before breakfast and this is what she said:

“Trudy, if I told you once, I told you a hundred times to stop eating all that organic food. Now, look what’s happened?”

We both roared with laughter and I knew that My Mother was solidly and forever on my team.

Humour not only distracts us in the moment, but there is reason to think that laughter not only lifts our spirits but may boost our immune system. Another advantage of looking for something funny to tell the group or our friends and family is the temporary mental reprieve we get as we search for a funny story. While we divert our attention to this project we get a temporary and welcome break from the worry and distress we are dealing with

Helping others:

Our lives can appear out of control and at the mercy of outside forces, particularly, when we have a health challenge. It is a quick slide into despair. Furthurmore, we often become the recipients of a great deal of help, which can be especially challenging when, up until now, we have been the  “helper.”  This is an important time to take every opportunity to do something for someone else. A phone call, enquiring about them. A thank you note to a neighbour or Doctor. By consciously considering what we can do for another provides us with a modicum of control and the research shows that we help ourselves, when we help others.

Purposeful Living:

Consider the things that are most important to you. What fills your spirit? Do you have things to accomplish while you can? I don’t ask this only because you may have a serious illness but because you like me, are human and are thus mortal. Setting short-term goals and doing something every day towards our most important purposes can be exceptionally meaningful. Furthurmore, we take back some control over our daily lives.

Visualization and mindfulness practices:

Check out yoga, meditation, Tai Chi, Qigong etc. Wherever you live, there are often places you can go to participate in classes, sometimes free of charge. A good first step is to check with the Psycho-social office at your hospital and any Integrative Health services that may be available.

Actively engage in trying new things:

In addition, rediscover old things that you enjoyed. At Wellspring Calgary,  free membership is offered to anyone affected by cancer including caregivers. There are dozens of programs that members can participate in, including exercise, mindfulness practices, music, art, cognitive programs, exploration programs like bird watching and snow shoeing; hiking with certified guides; speaker series with experts on treatment; screening; estate planning; returning to work, to name a few. Check to see if there is something similar in your area. The point is to try something new. This isn’t about busy work. Rather it is a wholehearted approach to try new things – opportunities to learn. Something meaningful that you are able to do under your current circumstances, where you can stretch yourself in a constructive and fun way.

Stretching ourselves both physically and mentally:

How about hiking, mountain climbing, drawing, cycling, dragon boating, walking, learning to play the uke or a quitar, while being realistic about present limitations and doing so safely. Stretching ourselves can open up a whole new world. You may fall in love with cycling, art or writing and have that for the rest of your life. You may take up something that you loved as a kid and had completely forgotten about. Cycling and photography was it for me. Read about a cycling adventure here.

Creative activity:

When we absorb ourselves in the doing of art, music, writing, poetry, calligraphy playing/learning an instrument, listening to music, blogging, photography, quilting, storytelling and so on, we stimulate the healing response. Choosing creative activities is a proven tool in living well with illness, ageing and in life.

Exploration and curiosity:

There is much to learn and see in the world, including your our own backyard, forever. All we need to do is pay careful attention to re-enhance our sense of wonder. We do this when we get outdoors and look around.

Co-exist with uncertainty:

Including the fear of death. Recognize death as a natural part of life and see that fear clarifies our desire to live. Fear can prompt us to live as well as we can. Not to prevent anything but to improve the quality of our everyday life. We can learn skills to help us cope, even thrive, during the rough patches. This isn’t easy but it is doable. For those who suffer extensively from fear of death, it can be helpful to seek out a trustworthy chaplain, psychologist or grief counselor.


This is a favourite word of mine, which means something like – with things as they are, what can I do here? It doesn’t mean trying to like the situation you find yourself in, nor is it passive resignation. My understanding is more like an active acceptance of what you can’t do anything about and a resolve to put our energy and effort into the things we can do something about. Learning to distinguish between what is controllable and what is not is a lifelong skill worth cultivating.


This word means something like a reason to get up in the morning or what makes one’s life worth living. Actively cultivating meaning and a sense of fulfillment from the active engagement in activities that are important to each person. This engagement tends to influence the quality of our everyday life.

Take an active role in our Disease Management:

Learn about our illness and our treatment; explore options; ask questions; maintain records; attend educational seminars; find out the non-medical things we can do. This is the opposite of  passive. It is also implies asking for help when you need it.

Power of words:

Examine words and phrases popularly used with cancer such as “lost the battle;” cure; prevent; warrior; “have to;” palliative; blame and so on. Recently in a national newspaper, a young woman diagnosed with cancer claimed that the most difficult and surprising thing about her diagnosis was the reaction from others that she must have done something wrong. This reaction is typical for lung cancer patients, where it is assumed you were a smoker. Lifestyle claims come laden with judgement. Believe me, I am all for a healthy lifestyle, yet, a healthy lifestyle is not a guarantee. This assumption of blame is in the popular press so it is important to look at words and perhaps choose different words that are more realistic such as “decrease the risk;” “up our chances;” “I get to” as opposed to “I have to;” (some people aren’t given an option of a treatment, as an example and all they hoped for was to have treatment.) Those words, “I get to” have chemo tomorrow,  can dramatically change a person’s approach to their treatment. The positive feedback on this has been universal.

Ultimately, the aim of this work is to offer encouragement and help to engage in constructive and meaningful activities, while you are alive and have the desire to live. Dr. Itami