Hope makes an immense difference in the cancer journey and its outcome. Without hope, I could have easily given in to despair and lost sight of the light in cancer’s dark tunnel,” says Mike Armstrong, former chairman and CEO of Comcast, AT&T and Hughes Electronics.
Armstrong is also a two-time cancer warrior who battled leukemia and prostate cancer. Now in retirement, he is setting out to change the discourse around cancer among doctors and warriors alike when it comes to having hope.
Having hope is something easier said than done when facing cancer. A life-changing diagnosis inspires a flurry of feelings, many of which may not be optimistic—which is a valid and natural response to a diagnosis and the trials and tribulations of treatment. But it turns out that your overall mindset can in fact play a part in your cancer journey.
“Many experts agree that hope plays a significant role in how cancer patients engage in their care and perhaps how they respond to treatments,” Armstrong says. “Hope adds quality of life both to the physician and to the patient and it can have a positive effect on the cancer journey.”
According to Stanford Medicine, “Hope can be a major tool of empowerment and an element for sustaining life and the will to live. Hope keeps one alive to fight for another day, a month, a year and a return to better health. It affords another opportunity to respond to therapy and to live. Hope is supported by the positive attitudes of the medical team but can also be very fragile.”
Armstrong acknowledges this fragility in his fight to the culture of hope among health care professionals. While cancer survival depends largely on science—such as cancer type, the stage of disease and how one responds to treatments—hope plays an important role in how you approach and engage with care. If a warrior’s health care team doesn’t support the notion of hope, especially when prognosis is bad, it may be detrimental to the success of treatment and the individual’s quality of life.
“Most hospitals and physicians are primarily focused on fighting the disease. They are reluctant to provide false hope and are equally averse to taking away hope. We need to encourage practitioners and patients alike to share stories of hope and purpose in the face of cancer,” says Armstrong. “We need to educate both clinicians and patients about the role and importance of hope, and to develop tools that both clinicians and patients can use in discussing, managing and even measuring hope.”
One such tool of utilizing a positive outlook for the future throughout the cancer journey is hope therapy, which emphasizes the components of hope. A 2019 study in journal SAGE Open Nursing engaged in hope therapy with 40 rehabilitating cancer patients through “brief hope intervention.” The four one-on-one sessions conducted in the study aimed to set realistic goals for the future, determine paths to success and encourage positive self-talk as motivation.
Results from this study showed physical and psychological symptoms were reduced significantly after the brief hope intervention with a slight increase in hope. It appears long-term hope intervention therapy for cancer warriors may prove useful when it comes to outlook on the future.
Making a plan for treatment was a form of goal setting that Armstrong found especially helpful during his own journeys. Short-term and long-term goal setting does not need to necessarily include beating cancer, though having a factual plan on how you and your medical team will approach your cancer can free you from a lot of stress, giving you time to focus on other motivating factors. You can prepare for the worst while still hoping for the best.
For Armstrong, support from family and friends was an important motivator in getting through treatment. His wife, Anne, was a strong source of hope for him. “We were facing this together and were prepared to deal with whatever was on the horizon, realistically and honestly, as we had done with the many other challenges we’d faced,” he says.
He also built an “arsenal of resources.” In his recent book “Cancer with Hope: Facing Illness, Embracing Life and Finding Purpose,” Armstrong shares this resource hub with readers. It includes a list of National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers, questions to ask your doctors, trusted cancer websites and more. “All are there to help ease your journey and improve your quality of life, which will strengthen your hope,” says Armstrong.
It’s vital to leave space to feel the negative emotions that come with a diagnosis and treatment—anger, grief, sadness. But to make a deliberate choice in maintaining hope and not letting cancer define you, Armstrong believes, offers a sense of purpose and allows you to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
“Hope helps patients recognize their own inner strength and tap into it. It helps foster the ability to turn negatives into positives and maintain joy and purpose in the face of adversity,” Armstrong says. “Joy and purpose are what make life worth living—and fighting—for.”