Before my diagnosis, as a doctor of internal medicine I hoped my patients with treatable disease would enjoy the best possible outcomes. As a patient newly diagnosed with cancer, I wanted to feel hopeful of a full recovery and long life. Unfortunately, every textbook labelled my type of cancer “incurable.” At times, I found it difficult to have hope.
Naturally, I looked to my physicians to give me hope. Indeed, there was hope for my recovery, and my physicians had hope. Yet it was a mistake to expect them to give me hope. Here’s why: Nobody—not my doctors or family or friends—could give me hope, something I didn’t understand until a few years into my survivorship when I explored the meaning of hope.
We all use this word—hope—every day. What exactly is hope? After researching various definitions and dipping into the philosophy and wisdom literatures, I found a definition that has served me well for decades. It has helped me as a patient dealing with recurrences and aftereffects and as a physician guiding and supporting other patients.
Hope: a pleasant feeling linked to a belief that the desired outcome can happen.
Once I learned that definition, I realized that nobody could give me hope. Why not? Because nobody can give me a feeling or a belief. Feelings and beliefs arise within me. Paradoxically, the idea that nobody could give me hope empowered me. Here’s how:
If nobody could give me hope, nobody could take away my hope, either. Hope was not like a set of car keys that someone could snatch away from me against my will. Any time I wanted to feel hopeful, there was nothing anyone could say or do to take away my hope.
And whatever my situation, I always could set the stage for hope. I could take steps to strengthen my belief the best possible outcome could happen for me, a belief that stirred feelings of hope. I could always take steps to make it easier for feelings of hope to arise.
Hope is essential to getting good care and living as fully as possible. If you want to feel hopeful, remember: Nobody can take away your hope, because hope arises within you. In future posts, I’ll explore some of the many steps you can take to set the stage for hope.
Wendy S. Harpham is a doctor of internal medicine, longtime cancer survivor and award-winning writer and speaker. Check out her blog on Healthy Survivorship and books, such as Happiness in a Storm: Embracing Life as a Healthy Survivor, which help patients get good care and live as fully as possible.