Discovering New Purpose After Cancer

The concept of repurposing catches my imagination. It’s the idea of adapting something for a purpose other than its original intent — a purpose that can be just as valuable, and effective, and stunning.

Take this barn, for example. Once a habitat for animals and hay, and maybe even varmints. And now a cozy home.

                             Not my house

Years ago, my husband, Gary, and I hosted groups of people on the occasional weekend at his parents’ ranch in the beautiful, remote hills of northern California. There, the vision of someday owning country property for weekend retreats was birthed.

After Gary was diagnosed with cancer, we thought about a weekend respite for cancer survivors and caregivers with emphasis on being proactive for quality of life.

And then cancer took a sharp left turn, and after ten years of cancer caregiving – much longer than the experts originally projected – I am now a cancer widow. But the vision of weekend breaks from the cares of the world is still brewing in the back of my head.

I’d love to salvage and renovate an old barn into inviting spaces. I don’t want to build a house that looks like a barn; I want a barn transformed into a warm, welcoming, open-beamed home because of the powerful word picture that paints. And I’d like to host day-long retreats in this barn-turned-house with emphasis on these objectives:

Better eating.

A nutritionist could speak to good nutrition and conduct a cooking demo. Because if I give you a healthful recipe, you may or may not try it. But if you help slice and dice and stir, and we break bread together, then you’re more likely to try that recipe at home.

Increased physical activity.

I’d love to lead a gentle hike to encourage my guests toward increased physical activity. The word exercise is a negative word to some, but increased physical activity may mean something as simple as a gentle walk through a neighborhood. *

Good self-care practices.

Self-care wasn’t high on my list of priorities during my cancer caregiving years. But it should have been. Because if we’re taking care of ourselves physically, mentally/emotionally, and spiritually, we are better able to care for our loved ones. I’d love to share some of the self-care tips with my guests that I eventually learned to put into practice.


It would be fun to offer an art session – perhaps mosaic-making to illustrate the picking up of shattered dreams and creating something new and beautifully useful.

Incorporating gratitude.

What if I provided journals for each guest, and encouraged them to take note of all there is to be grateful for: family and friends; lungs that work – this breath in, this breath out; sound of creek burbling over large rocks; taste of cinnamon tea. Practicing gratitude in the middle of loss is counterintuitive, but cancer taught Gary and me, instead of counting what was lost, to count all that remained.

Finding purpose and meaning.

I’d love to pose these questions to my guests: What is it you’ve always wanted to do that would bring more hope and purpose into your life? Listen to second graders read? Host an international exchange student? Teach water color classes? Rescue an animal? Learn to speak Italian? Help dig wells in Africa? What are the first steps to get you there? Write them down. Dream on paper.

* * *

When my husband, Gary, died of cancer, I pared down to fit almost everything I own into my friend’s 10-ft cargo trailer. I kept the repurposed pieces: a tall bookshelf Gary and I built from an old glass-fronted door still sporting its doorknob; a wooden trunk fashioned out of carved head- and footboards from my childhood bed; a hall mirror created from an old window, turned on its side with hooks added for scarves and hats.

Invaluable, whimsical pieces. Because Hubby made them.

And because they were salvaged items put back to work. A different use, yes, from their original function, but still with gorgeous, creative purpose.

What if we could find new meaning after unspeakable loss or unwelcome change?

We can.

I am living proof that just as outdated, run-down, broken, rusted items can be renovated into new and creative uses, our dreams and goals can be re-shaped, and our lives can brim with fresh courage and meaning.

* Consult your medical team before making any dietary or physical activity changes.

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