How To Reframe Your Life Goals After Illness

When illness strikes, it can be hard to get your life back on track. Here's some tips on how to embrace the new normal and pursue new, better goals.

When I was younger, I wrote out a 5 Year Plan. You may have done this, too: they’re widely considered a helpful tool to create a productive and workable vision of your future. The objective is to set your life on a course driven by design. I honestly believed my plan would serve as a framework that could guide me towards the theoretical end of my life, in my 80s or even 90s.

And then, suddenly in my mid-30s, I got sick. Seriously sick. Deathly sick, in fact.

In a flash, my whole life changed. Once the shock and awe of the situation came to fore, I realized I would need to re-calibrate the vision of my old, imagined future. I was working with the typical suggestions that most folks live by in 21st Century America: an up-rising career path, a house growing in value, a nice car every few years, a cushy vacation spot.

But none of that mattered anymore. None of it made sense.

Having a life-threatening illness altered everything. The 5 Year Plan immediately turned into something like a 5 Day Plan. Or, more truthfully, some days I could barely stay with a 5 Hour Plan.

Here’s how I changed the way I thought about my life goals–and got my life back on track–after diagnosis.

Accept the New Normal


After my illness, it took me months, even years, to begin the process of crafting a new path for myself. Letting go of my old understanding of life was excruciating at times.

While the concept of what a normal life means feels quaint, we tend to insist on returning to one after we get through challenging health crises. But after a health crisis, it can be impossible to return to ‘normal’, because you have become someone completely different from your past self: your life changed dramatically and unceremoniously in a way you didn’t foresee.

These expectations of returning to normality can hang like lodestones around your neck. Your past expectations of what your life should be are everywhere, haunting you: documents saved on your Google Drive, or scrawled on crumbly sheets of paper at the bottom of your desk drawer. Luckily, there are ways to retrain that silly brain to refocus.

One of the most effective ways for me was to stop myself from expecting tomorrow to be just like yesterday. It was to take a minute to pause, to go deeper into that moment, staying focused on the fact that, here I am! I am alive right now! The old normal might be gone, but the new one is here: no better, no worse, just different. Don’t give up on your dreams, just because things have changed.

Revisit Your Old Goals, And Create New Ones

Post-cancer, some of my old goals needed a serious overhaul. Others needed to be brought back to life.

Originally, I tried to just go back to work. And I did, for a time. But I wasn’t fully there mentally, no matter how I tried. While I knew that my colleagues gave me plenty of help and a wide berth, I never felt like being at the office working at a job I couldn’t focus on. It didn’t fully satisfy my innate strengths, and it made me feel powerless with my new conditions.

Eventually, I realized: maybe the old goal of continuing to advance on the career path I’d been locked into before I got sick wasn’t one that fit into my new reality. I needed to examine which previous goals were worth keeping. The ones worth keeping needed tweaking in a new frame. Some of the goals that lost weight in my world were typical ones. But the ones that were still alive, albeit dormant, were ready to be resuscitated.

I had always wanted to learn how to surf. I dabbled in the sport my whole life, but I never really had the chance to be taught. When I was well enough, I took that old goal, and went o learn how to surf with an incredible organization called Project Koru. The program and the experience empowered me. It changed my life for the better, and gave me fresh perspectives on the old vision of myself.

So seek out your old goals. Reread them from your new vantage point. Consider which of your goals still hold a power, and happiness, and peace that is raw to the touch. At the same time, consider new goals, things you’d always wanted to do, but were too locked into your old way of thinking to explore.

Author Mark Schoneveld surfing after his diagnosis.

Break Your Goals Into Smaller Pieces

Since I don’t live close to the ocean, I can’t go surfing every day. Instead, for daily exercise, I run. I haven’t completed a full run(yet), but they say “marathons are run one step at a time.”

Running keeps me healthy and strong. For me, it’s mostly a mental thing. When I feel like crap, when I don’t feel like doing it, that’s when it’s most potent. Just going outside for a short run makes me able to let go of the stress and fear because my body just says: “Okay, it’s run time. Shut the hell up, brain.”

Post-trauma life goals, like marathons and surfing, are best taken one step, one wave at a time. Illnesses can be so huge, so gargantuan. The war you’re fighting is multi-prong and complex and the only way to beat it is to break down your process into small, incremental steps.

To set up goals, start with the ones that are easy and doable. The ones that aren’t giant monsters. The ones you can say “oh, look at that, I made a small leap forward today!” You’ll feel better. Make it a habit. Nothing fancy or big, just a small thing.

For me, it was running. It became an easy habit. Making good habits both mentally and physically have improved my moods and my overall well being without a doubt. I hope it can do the same for you.

Evolve Your Support Network

Post-trauma health events are made elementally less stressful when you’ve got friends to give you support. Find those people.

When I started to finally get recalibrated, I started to make new friends, many of whom were struggling with their own illnesses. Many of them were folks who shared my diagnosis, and some even shared doctors and hospitals. They became people that I could speak with about what I was going through: people with a far deeper understanding of what it was like to have my condition than many of my existing friends and family members.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t allow yourself to lean on old friends. Many of them don’t know what the hell to do for you, but some of them will. And some of your old friends are the best ones to use as listeners. But some of my old friendships, inevitably, drifted away after my cancer diagnosis. At first, it bothered me, but then I realized: that was okay. Like some of my goals, they were part of the old normal, not the new one.

Remember Goals, Like Life, Should Always Be Changing

Filling out my 5 Year Goals probably a good thing for me to do at the time. It was nice to have them as a starting point, but I am happy that I learned that those goals, any goals, are just a concept… and like all concepts, they shouldn’t be static things. They should change as you do.

I used to get upset with myself about the goals I couldn’t reach. Now, I practice self-compassion, and look at my goals like the waves I surf: they morph and change fluidly with the tides, but no matter what they look like, I ride them just the same.