Julie Holt, Cancer Information Nurse, Cancer Society Wellington

‘Hope is a pleasant feeling linked to a belief that the desired outcome could happen. As a cancer patient, I assure you the pleasantness counts for something. Like honey added to a bitter mix, hope takes the edge off fear, sadness, and other unpleasant emotions of survivorship’. Wendy Schlessel Harpham

During my many years working as a cancer nurse I have done a lot of reading, thinking, and talking to people with cancer about the importance of hope. Hope can be a difficult thing to define and to hold on to when you are diagnosed with cancer. Harder still in these unusual times we are living in.

Watching the news over recent months has been quite confronting, especially seeing the devastation that Covid-19 has had on the lives of so many people worldwide. Our strong policies and decisive leadership both political and medical, has meant we can at least have hope that New Zealand is a safe country to live in. This sense of hope can help enormously in reducing our fear and helping us manage anxiety.


Hope is powerful but also complicated to understand and achieve. There is no simple pill to take or product you can buy that will give you hope. When you have cancer, friends and family often say ‘you must have hope’, as though it is something you can just conjure up – the hardest thing can be feeling bad that you’re letting people down because you’re not feeling hopeful.

I have observed that people who are struggling with pain or fatigue during treatment, often find it harder to be hopeful as these physical changes ( and the emotional impacts they can have) make it harder to feel that things can ever be better. This in turn can affect treatment recovery and wellbeing. That said there are some small but important things that can be done to create a sense of hope by cultivating a realistic positivity, enjoyment in life and improved outlook even in the midst of the physical and emotional challenges a cancer diagnosis and treatment can bring.

The section below sets out some of these small but important things that create hope. See if any of these would work for you?

How to find hope – what works?

Setting the stage for hope – thinking about the things that bring you joy and taking positive actions to feel better can really help. There’s no right or wrong way to do this – everyone is different. You might find you feel better by surrounding yourself with colours that you love, listening to your favourite music, being with people who lift your spirits, or reading inspiring stories of others who have had cancer. For some, going to a favourite place – it might be your garden, the beach or a bush walk, can remind you what is really special in your life. Others love watching their favourite team or a great film. Doing something that takes cancer out of the conversation completely can be a reminder of who you really are.


Managing stressful times – try reframing things that are stressful eg. waiting for results of a scan. Rather than being terrified it will be bad news, try thinking about this as a necessary step in helping your doctors get more information to recommend the best treatment for you. Recognising that uncertainty is always part of having cancer can help you feel better. Knowing more about what side effects of your treatment might be, how to manage them and who to call for advice can help you feel more hopeful.


Talking about how you are feeling – for many people cancer brings a sense of grief and loss. Loss of identity and roles, changes in your work, worry about the impact on your family, and loss of your normal coping skills, are common. Knowing that these feelings are normal can lead to you reinvesting your energy in things that you enjoy and helps you stay aware of the positive things in life. Finding trusted people to talk to – family, a close friend, talking to a counsellor or your spiritual advisor can be very beneficial.

Looking forward – people with cancer are often encouraged to live in the moment, take things a day at a time – this can be great advice. Often though having a goal to look forward to can play a vital role in helping you cope with the challenges you  are facing.                                       .

Reading inspiring stories – I have found that reading stories of people who have had cancer and found creative ways of getting through the challenges, invaluable to my understanding of hope. These are the stories of those who have been there and who give so much to others eg. our own local cancer survivors and authors Phil Kerslake and David Downs, as well as Wendy Schlessel Harpham (medical doctor and cancer survivor), and Sophie Sabbage who describes herself as a ‘stage 4 cancer thriver’ (see below for book suggestions).


Knowing that what you hope for can change – hearing bad news that perhaps your treatment isn’t working or that your cancer has come back may mean that your hopes will change. Asking yourself ‘what am I hoping for now’ may help you to focus on what is really important now. Hoping for a good day or a happy event, can keep you from using your energy on feeling disappointed or fearful of what will happen next.

                                  ‘Hope boots me out of bed in the morning and lifts my eyes to the sunrise’. Sophie Sabbage


Book suggestions:

  • Healing Hope – Through and beyond cancer by Wendy Schlessel Harpham, Curant House, USA, 2018.See this link for more info on Wendy’s other excellent books as well as her blog https://www.wendyharpham.com/writing 
  • The Cancer Whisperer: Finding Courage, Direction and the Unlikely Gifts of Cancer by Sophie Sabbage, Hodder & Stoughton, UK. 2017





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