Two years ago this month, my breast cancer was advancing again. It was back in my liver and spreading through my bones. I was on my third or fourth line of estrogen-focused chemo, but it seemed clear that they were no longer working. My (former) oncologist still wanted to try one more. And he said that on the average life-expectancy scale for people with my disease, some women had to be on the low end.
I didn’t want to be one of those women, nor did I want to be cared for by someone who thought that I would be. Thanks for your support so far, Dr. S., but adios.
It was a scary time, but I still had hope, and I was determined to find someone who also had hope for me. I found the courage to fire Dr. S., who had initially helped save my life. I took up the reins and steered myself somewhere else.
Thanks to good luck and a recommendation from a close friend who has been involved with the nonprofit Breast Cancer Alliance for many years, I landed in the office of Dr. D. She was full of hope! Just the person I was looking for. She immediately put me on a new type of chemo and talked about all the developments in the field that we could try if it didn’t work.
But it did. My cancer began to clear and, as of last week, my tumor marker is as low as it’s been in years.
There is reason to hope, people. I’m living proof. But there is also scientific evidence to support making hope part of your response to any illness.
Dr. Jerome Groopman, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, Chief of Experimental Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and a leading AIDS researcher, writes in “The Anatomy of Hope,” that “Researchers are learning that a change in mind-set has the power to alter neurochemistry.”
“In some cases,” he writes, “hope can also have important effects on fundamental physiological processes like respiration, circulation, and motor function.” His research has shown that belief and expectation—the key elements of hope—have an impact on the nervous system, which, in turn, sets off a chain reaction that makes improvement and recovery more likely.
Shane Lopez, PhD., points to another way hope helps us heal. In his book, “Making Hope Happen,” he writes that, “Hope for the future is clearly linked with daily habits that support health and prevent disease.” Hopeful people conjure a vision that sustains them, causes them to show up when hard work needs to be done, and accept setbacks, he says. They also invest in the future in a way that pays off in the present; they eat well, exercise, conserve energy, take care of themselves, and stick to their treatment plant.
So, now what?
If you’d like to develop more hope, or encourage someone you know to have hope despite an illness of their own, here are four ways to do it, identified by researchers Duane Bidwell, of Claremont School of Theology, and Dr. Donald Batisky, of Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta:
- Maintain your identity by participating in activities and relationships that help you retain a sense of self outside of your diagnosis and treatment.
- Claim your power by taking an active role in your treatment by advocating for yourself (leaving an unsupportive doctor, for instance), setting goals, and monitoring and maintaining your own health.
- Build your sense of connection to something larger than yourself through religious or spiritual practices or doing volunteer work.
- Engage with other people to help you realize you are not alone in living with disease. Join support groups, share your personal experiences, and offer encouragement to others. Share this newsletter!
I’ve now been living with metastatic breast cancer for three and a half years, right smack in the middle of the life-expectancy scale. I like to think of it as “the old scale,” as new treatments help patients live longer.
There is no guarantee how long I’ll live. But living with hope and courage feels a lot better than living with fear and passivity.
If you or someone you love develops cancer, have hope, find a doctor who shares it, and be courageous in your search for the right medical team and treatment options. And if you’d like to develop more hope or build up the courage to advocate for yourself, reach out. I’d love to help.