August 2018Research at the Lady Davis Institute

Trying to find meaning in a life altered by advanced cancer

The need to confront one’s mortality and find meaning in life is a two-pronged challenge that almost everyone has to face at some point. However, a cancer diagnosis often forces this reckoning to be made unexpectedly and, in many instances, earlier in life than expected.

Now JGH researchers are trying to determine whether, and how, better psychological support might be provided to individuals who have advanced cancer and require assistance in their search for meaning.

The goal is to design an intervention related to this quest for meaning, and to test its effect on patients’ ability to adjust to and cope with difficulties at the end of life.

“Health care generally focuses on the physical needs brought on by disease, but the emotional, social and spiritual dimensions also require attention,” says Dr. Melissa Henry, a psychologist with the Louise Granofsky Psychosocial Oncology Program at the Segal Cancer Centre.

“As people deal with new limitations on their bodies, they become anxious over existential concerns and making sense of what it means to have lived—their legacy, regrets and relationships. We want to determine what helps patients adapt to the life changes brought about by an advanced cancer diagnosis.”

Dr. Henry is working with Dr. Robin Cohen, a senior investigator at the Lady Davis Institute, to recruit patients for the clinical trial of an intervention involving what is known as meaning-making—that is, discovering the meaning of one’s life in the face of a difficult prognosis.

The researchers’ eventual hope is to give patients skills to take advantage of the moments that they have in the present, while readjusting to the idea of a future that may be attenuated.

To participate in the clinical trial

Dr. Melissa Henry is recruiting 471 cancer patients from the JGH and the MUHC for a randomized controlled trial related to finding meaning in life. To qualify, participants must be:

  • at least 18 years old
  • diagnosed with stage 3 or 4 cancer within the preceding two months
  • able to look after most of their own personal needs, with occasional help if necessary

Some participants will be given the usual care (in a control group) and will meet with an empathic listener. Others will receive an intervention from a trained psychotherapist or social worker (with details of the intervention withheld, for now, to prevent bias).

To participate in the trial or to refer a patient, please contact Maggie Costa at or 514-340-8222, extension 26756. Dr. Henry can be reached at 514-340-8222, extension 22252.

During the clinical trial, some of the participants will receive the intervention from a trained psychotherapist or social worker, while others (in the control group) will meet with an empathic listener. Dr. Henry believes that individuals in the latter group will benefit from the experience, even if they are not given the intervention.

“It can be difficult to find an objective, empathic listener in one’s life,” she says, “because those closest to the patient become, themselves, emotionally involved and don’t always quite know how to react. That’s why we expect that people who meet with the empathic listener will benefit, as well.”

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