'Healing Hope' After Cancer


WE SURVIVORS ARE INUNDATED with the message: “Be hopeful!” Unfortunately, that universal rallying cry doesn’t help us know how to find hope or what to hope for.

WE SURVIVORS ARE INUNDATED with the message: “Be hopeful!” Unfortunately, that universal rallying cry doesn’t help us know how to find hope or what to hope for.

I’m a 28-year survivor of multiple recurrences of non-Hodgkin lymphoma who, after ongoing illness forced me to stop treating patients as a medical doctor, turned to writing and speaking to educate, comfort and inspire others facing this illness. In my recent book “Healing Hope — Through and Beyond Cancer,” I offer insights and tips about finding healing hope: namely, hope that helps you get good care and live as fully as possible. Here are some of those tips.

1 Make sure that what you’re hoping for is based on sound information. Dangers arise when hopes are based on inaccurate information. For example, scientific studies indicate that exercise can ease cancer-related fatigue. If tired patients hope that strict bed rest will help, they may lie down all day — and unwittingly worsen their fatigue. Here’s the kicker: Hope based on misguided information can feel as uplifting as realistic hope. By learning the facts about what you’re hoping for, you avoid the danger of investing in hope that feels good but leads you away from beneficial actions.

2 Write down your realistic hopes and prioritize them. I remember my distress while facing recurrent cancer and wanting to avoid more chemotherapy. What helped me most was this realization: More than I hoped to avoid additional chemotherapy, I hoped to receive the treatments that would give me a good chance of survival. With those hopes in mind, I then weighed each option’s risks and benefits for me. Whatever the challenge, focusing on your toppriority hope galvanizes the courage and clearheadedness needed to make the best decision. Making the best decision increases the chance of the best possible outcome, which, in turn, strengthens your hope of the best outcome. Hope begets hope.

3 Ask yourself: “Is my hope helping me think and act in healthy ways?” If not, let it go and invest in more healing hopes. The big surprise for me was discovering that some of my realistic hopes were not healing. For example, while undergoing diagnostic tests, I hoped for the same thing as everyone else: good news. Well, that hope never helped me. If anything, it made me feel more vulnerable and impotent and somewhat responsible when I got the news I’d feared — as if I hadn’t hoped right. I found a more healing hope. Now, throughout my evaluations, I repeatedly tell everyone, “I’m hoping for accurate news — news that can help me most.” Look how this hope helps: It gives me a sense of purpose that drives me to hold still in the scanner, producing more accurate results; it stirs patience, because I want my doctors to take their time scrutinizing the findings; it lessens the shock if the results are what I feared; and it prevents despair by framing upsetting results as “useful” news and silencing an inner voice trying to blame me. I still hope for good news, but I push that hope to the background and keep my hope for accurate news center stage.

4 Focus on short-term hopes that motivate you to action. In general, try focusing on shorterterm hopes, such as getting through the next cycle of chemotherapy, instead of finishing treatment. Concentrate on hopes that involve outcomes you can influence, such as the hope that you are eating well instead of the hope that treatments are working. In your efforts to find healing hope, remember:

• There is always something healing to hope for.

• You can expect one thing and hope for another.

• No doctors can take away hope unless you let them.

• Reality-based hope is stronger than hope based on wishful thinking.

• If there is a chance of the desired outcome, you have reason to feel hope.

Hope is like a medicine that can heal or harm, depending on what patients are hoping for. Let’s change the conversation about hope by talking about what we’re hoping for and which hopes matter most to us. Let’s discuss how to find and strengthen hopes that help us think and act in healing ways and how to avoid hopes that might lead us astray. In every situation, hope matters. With healing hope, we can live our best life today, tomorrow and every day.

WENDY S. HARPHAM, M.D., FACP, is an award-winning author of eight books on survivorship and a 28-year cancer survivor enjoying her longest remission. She is also a member of the CURE® advisory board. Her latest book, “Healing Hope — Through and Beyond Cancer,” offers these insights and tips, along with many others, in an innovative format that features illustrated aphorisms. Learn more at wendyharpham.com.

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