Living after cancer – growing after cancer

31 May 2020 | By Sara Ivarsson

Positive psychological changes can be developed after going through cancer – I talked to Fabian Bolin, a survivor of leukemia and the CEO and co-founder of the app War on Cancer, on the subject. Read more about post traumatic growth and strategies to process what you’ve been through here!

This is the seventh blog post in a series on living with cancer that I'll be writing coming months. The introduction and links to the first blog posts, can be found in the first one; To live with, after and next to cancer.

Before doesn't really exist

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Viktor Frankl

When things happen, we absorb and adapt. We respond to what we experience, and that is neither good nor bad. It simply is. Recovering from cancer doesn’t mean going back to who we were before. Before doesn’t really exist anymore. The ground we’re standing on has been shaken and our response will create changes in ourselves and our lives. There is not so much going back, as moving forward.

There is no one way of moving forward, and definitely not one way to feel when moving forward. For me, who lost my boyfriend, life has become a blend of heart wrenching low valleys and wonderfully high peaks. On beforehand I would have guessed that high peaks wouldn’t be possible anymore. How can they when he’s gone?

Then, reading a post about post traumatic growth (PTG) on the digital social network app War On Cancer, I understood more about what I’m experiencing. The post was written by the founder of War On Cancer, Fabian Bolin. Fabian is a survivor of leukemia. He has in several posts and interviews stated that he thinks his life has improved after being diagnosed with cancer. I called him to talk about mental health, cancer, and post traumatic growth.

Trauma is , in different degrees, traumatizing
How going through cancer affects each person will always be different. No matter the outcome; your role; or the severity, living with cancer is, in different degrees, traumatizing.

– If trauma isn’t properly dealt with there is a pretty high risk of developing either PTSD or clinical depression”, Fabian says.

– Research shows that 22% of cancer patients suffer from PTSD within the first six months of diagnosis and 25% suffer from clinical depression at some point during or after treatment.

But while mental health issues being quite common in cancer patients, there are also reports of positive psychological changes that develop after going through cancer. That experience – that from adversity and the following struggle, positive life changes occur – is what’s called post traumatic growth PTG).

Fabian describes that PTG generally happens in five areas in life:

  • Improved relationships with others – It’s very common to value friends and family more deeply and develop closer and stronger relationships.
  • New possibilities in life – We might see opportunities we didn’t see earlier. We dare to, and see the value in, taking steps; making changes; and do things we might have hold back on before.
  • A greater appreciation of life – Coming face to face with our mortality can lead us to appreciate and treasure moments we may have taken for granted. We are more able to live in the present and often life take on a new meaning.
  • Personal strength – Going through adversity increase our inner strength and faith in our own capability, often with a strong feeling of “If I lived through that, I can face anything”.
  • Spiritual development – As cancer often evokes bigger questions about life, death, meaning and purpose, it’s not unusual to gain a stronger connection to our spiritual side.

Not everyone experiences PTG. You may relate to having positive changes in one or all the areas above, or none. Most people who experience PTG are often surprised by the growth that occurs. It often comes unexpectedly, as the result of trying to make sense of an unfathomable event.

And while you can’t make PTG happen, there are known strategies to process what you’ve been through that increases mental wellbeing and contributes to the possibility of experiencing growth and positive psychological changes:

Strategies in processing what you've been through

  • Reflect on your experiences
 – Write, talk, and share about your story and the effects living with cancer have on you.
  • Connect with others 
– Apart from telling your own story it’s good to hear others’ stories. From a trauma perspective it is very healing to have someone empathize and say “I know exactly what you mean, I’ve been through that”.
  • Help others – Helping others is healing in many ways. You can volunteer or support charities that are important to you, but simply sharing what you’ve been through can also help others going through cancer to feel better, or more comfortable, or less scared.
  • Create a post trauma life vision 
– Reflect on what you’ve learned from your experience and what's meaningful in your life going forward. Then with small steps day by day, make positive changes to support your goals, like schedule activities involving these interests.
  • Allow yourself to feel what you feel
 – Don’t diminish your response to the hard time you are going through. Our natural inclination are to avoid uncomfortable emotions and thoughts. However, you have to go through the difficult emotional process before adversity can turn into advantage.
  • Reduce anxiety 
– Relaxation techniques, such as meditation and progressive muscle relaxation, and regular exercise can both prevent and decrease anxiety.

Approach these strategies in ways that make you feel safe and are suitable for you. If you want support and help, practicing with Yogobe and using the War On Cancer app will provide you with appropriate tools.

As Fabian and his team build and develop the War On Cancer app they take into consideration the strategies above. The social network app is created just to serve the needs there are to reflect, connect, help, and create visions moving forward.

Awareness and openness to allow all emotions and thoughts to be present is a central part of yoga. At the end of the article you find suggestions for videos for reducing anxiety and connecting with your emotions.

Beauty despite of trauma
It’s important to be aware that PTG does not make everything all better. Even if you, or someone you’re close to, is experiencing growth it does NOT mean that they will not suffer. Both can occur simultaneously. The trauma was and is still real.

Personally, I can relate to positive changes in all five areas. That doesn’t make my boyfriend’s death less painful. It doesn’t exclude the days when I’m feeling numb or the days when I’m just a limp puddle on the floor crying so hard I can’t catch my breath. It is all real. But nonetheless, I’m genuinely happy with my life today. Through all this I have learned that I can go through trauma and still find beauty.

"And if you were to ask me

After all that we’ve been through

Still believe in magic?

Well yes, I do

Oh yes, I do"

– Magic, Coldplay

Video recommendations

Progressive muscle relaxation and meditation are good tools to reduce anxiety:

10 min

Yoga with

En av framgångsfaktorerna till att hantera stress är att lära sig att bara vara i kroppen, med Sara Hoy.

15 min

Meditate with

A guided meditation that brings attention to the sensations in the body and helps to cultivate body awareness.

5 min

Meditate with

Let go of tension and create space for calm in this meditation with Amir Jaan.

10 min

Breathe with

En kort andningsövning och visualisering som kan göras sittande eller liggande.

Use this Sankalpa practice as one way of creating your post trauma life vision:

15 min

Meditate with

Grab a pen and paper and get ready to commit to this affirmation.

Practice noticing and being with your feelings:

30 min

Yoga with

Go inside for presence and to allow yourself to accept what you experience and feel, to be OK with what is. A lunar meditative yin class with Ulrica Norberg.

10 min

Meditate with

Lär dig att observera känslor och acceptera dem som de är, istället för att värdera dem olika.

3 min

Meditate with

Om hur du mentalt kan prova att skapa en inre plats som kan bidra till en känsla av trygghet.

To watch a full video you need to be logged in as a paying Yogobe member. Haven't tried Yogobe before? Try it for free during 14 days – click here to get started!

War on cancer

The physical challenge is huge for a cancer patient. The mental and emotional challenge is at least as great. War On Cancer is a social media-app, a social network and community, where everyone affected by cancer have the opportunity to share their cancer experience and get in contact with others who actually understand. War On Cancer's mission is to put focus on, and radically improve, the mental health of everyone affected by cancer. The first step is the digital social network that creates belonging and community in a time of isolation and uncertainty. You are reminded that you are never alone. We'll fight cancer together.

Learn more about War On Cancer and download their app at

Share your story, it will make a difference.

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Sara Ivarsson

Sara is a yoga teacher previously focusing on yoga for athletes but now working more therapeutic with focus on cancer patients, cancer survivors and their families.

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