What I Wish Medical School Had Taught Me About Cancer

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Medical school didn't teach me how to help patients find hope during tough times.

Image of a doctor making a heart with their hands.

Having hope during cancer may look different for everyone, Harpham said.

As a doctor with cancer, I enjoyed many advantages — except for one critical factor: knowledge about “hope.” I believed hope was important. But my medical training hadn’t taught me how to help patients find the best hopes for them, nor how to help patients nurture hope in tough times.

I was 36 years old when first diagnosed with cancer. Textbooks described my cancer as incurable, yet I felt hopeful. I was otherwise healthy and research studies on the new chemotherapy cocktail flowing through my veins had shown promise for curing my type of cancer. Six months later, my hope soared when scans showed complete remission.

Before my one-year checkup, my cancer was back. My prognosis was worse. I had to close my medical practice. My children were only 4, 6 and 8 years old. What could I hope for now? What should I hope for?

Everyone kept urging me to have hope! But it wasn’t like turning on a light switch. That’s when I began exploring what hope is, how it works, and how to find hope. Not just any hope, but healing hope — namely hope that helps patients get the best care and live as fully as possible. After learning a few basic ideas and putting them into action, my life improved dramatically.

For example, while undergoing evaluations I naturally hoped for the same thing most people hope for: good news. Unfortunately, that made me feel more vulnerable and impotent because I had no control over the results. Those times I received the news I’d feared, I felt stunned and somehow responsible, as if I hadn’t hoped right. For me, “hope for good news” was not healing.

I discovered something better after my second cancer recurrence: “hope for accurate news.” Ever since, this has been my go-to hope whenever undergoing evaluations. Why? It gives me a sense of purpose, motivating me to hold still in the scanner. It gives me patience to wait for the results because I want my doctors to scrutinize my scans. And it helps prepare me for any news.

The healing effects of this hope continue after test results come in. If I’m relieved, celebrations taste sweeter. If the results are what I feared, having hoped for accurate news lessens the shock, prevents despair by framing the upsetting results as useful news, and quiets the inner voice trying to blame me — all of which help me adjust and move on. For me, “hope for accurate news” is a healing hope while undergoing evaluations.

A different hope helps whenever I’m weighing treatment options. I discovered it after my oncologist recommended more chemotherapy to treat my fourth recurrence. Hoping to avoid taking any more toxic drugs, I was struggling with the decision when I had a eureka moment: “More than I hope to avoid more chemo, I hope to receive whatever treatments give me the best chance.” Focusing on my higher-priority hope motivated me to overcome my fear and proceed with the chemotherapy that put my cancer back into remission. Ever since, whenever making treatment decisions, “hope for the best chance” has been a healing hope for me.

Today, 17 years after my last cancer treatment, I’m an active grandmother living a wonderful life. Hope has played a key role in how things turned out. To be clear: hope did not cure my cancer. Rather, it guided and supported me through the many courses of treatment that eventually cured my cancer.

Importantly, had those treatments not worked, my hope still would have been healing. By shaping my outlook and decisions, it would have helped me find serenity to accept the things I could not change, and motivation to change the things I could. With healing hope in my heart, I’d have made my life the best it could be in whatever time I had.

That’s why I wish every patient knew:

What you hope for matters. There are no “right” hopes for everyone, but there are “best” hopes for you for now.

Hope can help or harm. Hope helps when it motivates you to actions that increase the chance of the desired outcome, and when it decreases stress while you wait to see how things will turn out. Hope harms when it leads you away from measures that can help.

Finding hope can be hard work. Addressing common obstacles to hope — such as pain, certain medications, sleep deprivation, fatigue, grief, misinformation — takes time and effort, and sometimes requires involvement of the health care team.

From the moment of diagnosis on, there is always something good to hope for. Healing hope helps us live — in every sense of the word.

Wendy Harpham, author of "Healing Hope —Through and Beyond Cancer."

This post was written and submitted by Wendy Harpham. The article reflects the views of Harpham and not of CURE®. This is also not supposed to be intended as medical advice.

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