Three years ago—as a new cancer widow, resigning my job, and preparing to write full-time at the encouragement of my adult children—I sent a farewell letter to the community I served as Survivorship Coordinator at the St. Charles Cancer Center. A friend wrote back, sharing the words that had been his mantra as his young daughter was losing her battle to cancer: “Define your purpose; live your reason.”
How do we do that, especially when cancer enters the picture leaving us unraveled, anxious, disjointed?
Consider these 5 action steps to help define and accomplish our purpose, even in adversity:

  1. Capture goals on paper.

There’s science that supports the importance of writing down our goals. In a study at Dominican University, psychology professor Dr. Gail Matthews recruited 267 participants from a variety of global businesses, organizations, and networking groups. She randomly assigned each to one of five groups.
Group One was asked to merely think about the goals they hoped to accomplish within a four-week slice of time, and to rate each according to importance, while Group Two was asked to write down their goals and rate them.

This thought from Napoleon Hill: “Cherish your visions and your dreams as they are the children of your soul, the blueprints of your ultimate achievements.”

Perhaps we should value the desires in our hearts enough to write them down.

  1. Determine first steps.

Group Three was instructed to write and rate their goals, and determine action steps for each. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.

“Vision without action is merely a dream,” wrote Joel A. Barker. “Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.”

3. Recruit an accountability partner.

Group Four in Professor Matthews’ study was asked to write and rate their goals, establish action steps, and share them with a friend.

There’s power in having an accountability partner — someone who believes in the beauty of our dreams, someone to ask the tough questions: How’s that book/ grant application/ business plan/ scholarship application coming along? 

  1. Report progress made.

Participants in Group Five were asked to be the most proactive: Write and rate your goals, determine and share action steps with an accountability partner, and provide them with a weekly progress report.
The statistical results of this study may surprise you: “More than 70 percent of the participants who sent weekly updates to a friend reported successful goal achievement compared to 35 percent of those who kept their goals to themselves, without writing them down.”

  1. Be willing to re-imagine.

This point wasn’t part of Professor Matthews’ study, but sometimes circumstances change our lives. Dramatically. Which can affect how we think about what we hope to accomplish.

Adversity hits and we let the vision die. Because now we have cancer. Or now it’s financially impossible to reach our target. Or our goal is too large, complex, inaccessible now that we’re on our own.

But if adversity is a guaranteed part of living, then how ought we to manage cancer, financial setbacks, or loss of a loved one when it comes to achieving our goals?

Is it possible to regroup, re-imagine, rewrite, and work in the direction of the revised goals?
Yes, oh yes. (Speaking from experience.)


Three years ago as I was packing up to move after resigning my job, a bracelet arrived in the mail from one of my beautiful sisters-in-law. A charm dangled from it: “Embrace the journey.” There was also a tiny heart engraved with a cursive “B.” Before I knew the “B” stood for the name of the jewelry company, it spoke to me of my life-changing, scary, unnerving decision to leave the comfortable and step out into the unknown.

Be unafraid. Be a risk-taker. Be about finding your purpose, it said.

To that end, Denis Waitley speaks to me: “A dream is your creative vision for your life in the future. You must break out of your current comfort zone and become comfortable with the unfamiliar and the unknown.”

The road might not take us where we initially wanted to go. But traveling with a repurposed vision can be just as brimming and extraordinary and eloquent.

Which begs the question: What is it you want to accomplish with your one, wildly unique, unstoppable, blazing life?

Marlys Johnson is a cancer widow, author, speaker & blogger. We first met her through her work coordinating St. Charles Medical Center’s Survivorship Program and her beloved husband, Gary – a CHN Support Volunteer for many years. Her passion for helping others navigate life’s challenges inspires us every day and we are delighted to share her insights.

To read more of Marlys’ work – and discover her love of all things outdoors – visit her blog Cancer Adventures.

Featured image, Fineas Anton, Unsplash