Finding Your Cancer Mindset

by Beverly A Zavaleta MD

April 7, 2021

Finding your mindset is an important step toward facing cancer each day when you are undergoing chemotherapy. A mindset is a mental attitude or inclination—it acts like a filter through which we see the world and interpret events. It even affects how we view our own feelings. Our mindset biases how we approach life. 

I write more about this in my book Braving Chemo: What to Expect, How to Prepare, and How to Get Through It.

The most common cancer mindset that you are likely to hear is the Battle. People often say things like, “He’s battling cancer,” and companies sell T-shirts that say, “Fight for the Cure.” For some of us, this battle talk is what we need to get energized and ready. The fighting words give us courage. But when I was diagnosed, the Battle mindset made me feel unsettled. I wondered, if the cancer is part of me, then who exactly am I fighting—myself? Moreover, fighting a battle felt angry and violent, and I wanted to heal, not fight. 

Another common cancer mindset you may encounter is the Journey. There are numerous blogs and memoirs by cancer patients and survivors that tell their personal journeys of cancer treatment and recovery. These narratives describe the survivors’ stories, the good and the bad of what they experienced with cancer, how they coped and what they learned. For some of us, this is the perfect approach. For others, the Journey mindset may strike us as rather whimsical, over-analytical or avoidant of the harsh realities of cancer. What to do?

There is no one correct cancer mindset. Each of us finds our own right path. On a good day I landed somewhere between the Battle and the Journey—in a mindset I envisioned as the Challenge, something more like a triathlon or a mountain climb. When I felt drained and in need of help, I found a Healing mindset to be more helpful. Putting it together, I tried to envision the physical, mental and spiritual challenges of chemo as part of doing the hard work of healing.

Confronting cancer and going through chemo with a balance of a Challenge and Healing mindset required both grit and gentleness. Grit to keep me going even when I was scared or in pain, and gentleness to allow for recuperation and reflection when that was what I required. Because of this balance, I could acknowledge the horror of cancer but eventually continue to experience the beauty of living. 

It can be difficult to know what mindset will feel most supportive for you as you undergo cancer treatment, and even then, you might find your mindset changes as your experience with cancer evolves.

Try the exercise below to practice different mindsets and see what feels right for you. 



Journey Mindset


Visualize yourself on a Journey, winding your way step by step along a path.

Slowly you pick your way forward, listening to your surroundings and your internal signals.

What are you learning about yourself and about what matters to you?

Can you see a goal ahead?

Who is with you on this Journey?

What does your best life look like?

Battle Mindset


Now try on a Battle Mindset.

Visualize yourself as a powerful warrior standing tall.

Sound the ancient battle cry: Come and Take It! Fighting words will help you feel brave.

See yourself conquering cancer, with chemotherapy as a powerful weapon.

Challenge Mindset


How about a Challenge Mindset, such as training for a triathlon?

Visualize yourself rising to the Challenge and winning the race. Be aware of how amazing and intelligent your body is!

Have faith that your body knows how to heal and recover, with just this little nudge from chemo.

Just like training for a competition, when you sleep, eat and focus your mind, you are preparing and maintaining your body for the physical stress of chemotherapy.

You are capable of turning yourself into a chemo triathlon-winning machine!

Healing Mindset

Settle in to a Healing Mindset. Imagine your body gathering its resources, your cells renewing themselves, cleansing themselves from the inside out.

Think of this healing state like hibernation, from which you will emerge refreshed and replenished.

Allow the healing process to occur without much guidance from your thinking brain—your body knows how to do this!

Finding your mindset is an important step toward facing cancer each day when you are undergoing chemotherapy. After you’ve done this exercise, you should have a better sense of the mindset that works best for you.

You may find that more than one mindset works best at different points in your treatment!

Remember to lean on the support that you have from family and friends—their love will keep you strong and help you through the tough parts.

Find Dr. Zavaleta’s blog at


Posted in: Emotional/Mental Health, Exercise, In Treatment, Just Diagnosed, Mindfulness/Wellness, Side Effects, Survivorship