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Palliat Support Care. 2015 Aug;13(4):885-900. doi: 10.1017/S1478951514000790. Epub 2014 Jun 26.

Meaning and existential givens in the lives of cancer patients: A philosophical perspective on psycho-oncology.

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  • 1Department of Psychology,University of Roehampton,London,United Kingdom.



Many cancer patients report changes in how they experience meaning in life and being confronted with life's limitations, understanding themselves as being vulnerable, finite, and free beings. Many would like to receive psychotherapeutic help for this. However, psychotherapy for these concerns often either focuses primarily on meaning in life (e.g., meaning-centered/logotherapy) or on existential givens (e.g., supportive-expressive therapy). The relationship between meaning in life and existential givens seems relatively unexplored, and it seems unclear how therapists can integrate them. The present article aims to explore the relationship between meaning and existential givens.


Martin Heidegger was a founder of existentialism, inspiring both meaning therapies and supportive-expressive therapies. Therefore, we systematically apply his understanding of these phenomena, elucidated by four elements in his central metaphor of "the house."


(1) Walls: In everyday life, we construct ordinary meanings, like the walls of a house, to protect us from our surroundings, wind, and rain. (2) Surroundings ("existential givens"): Confronted with cancer, the meanings/walls of this house may collapse; people may start seeing their surroundings and understand that they could have built their house at a different location, that is, they understand the broad range of possibilities in life, their responsibility to choose, and the contingency of current meanings. (3) How to design, build, and dwell: People may design, build, and dwell in their house in different ways: they may lock themselves in their house of impermeable "ordinary meanings" and deny the existence of existential surroundings; they may feel overwhelmed by all possibilities and be unable to experience meaning; they may build the house as their true home, use life's possibilities, and listen to their true self by building permeable "existential meanings." (4). Navigator: People may experience inner guidance to navigate in designing, building, and dwelling in this house.


Meaning in life and existential givens are intertwined. Therefore, we suggest that it is necessary for psycho-oncologists to address both. Further clinical validation is required.


Existential therapy; Martin Heidegger; Meaning in life; Meaning-centered therapy; Psycho-oncology

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