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  • Jeanne Lee

Post 65: Optimism and Hope

"Staying positive" and "being optimistic" are probably two big ways to keep motivated in making the best of each day and working towards a "better" future - however you envision "better" to be - when attempting to cope with a life altering diagnosis or living with serious illness and health issues impacting your day to day life.


Optimism is the expectation that all will turn out well, that the outcome will be good regardless of the situation. This belief can serve as an effective means of coping during especially rough times. One may say, for example, "I know this experimental therapy will work. I will focus on getting through the cancer treatments, getting stronger with physical therapy, and eating and gaining weight, and this cancer will be gone." This type of positive thinking would likely be much more motivating for people to continue focusing on controlling their disease than thoughts such as, "The other therapies didn't work, and this is only experimental. I doubt this will have any effect on the cancer."


Some people even use the "fight" language to help them visualize a tangible "enemy" to "defeat." I discuss in Post 46: How Being a "Fighter" Can Alter Your Path both the potential beneficial and potential harmful impacts of telling a loved one, "You're a fighter."


Sometimes persistent optimism even as health worsens and prognosis shortens can lead to expectations of an outcome that is medically not achievable or realistic. For instance, a family member might think, "The last three therapies worked for a little while. We will try this experimental therapy. We will have our miracle and the cancer will be gone" (read Post 63: 4 Steps to Supporting Your Loved One who is Praying for a "Miracle").


This type of optimism and the associated denial of the reality of the situation might result in lost opportunities to share important words such as "I love you" and "Good bye," to take care of practical matters such as completing a will or naming a guardian for one's children, or to complete legacy work to bestow on close family and friends (read Post 12: Legacy Work and the Five Senses).


Fervent optimism that does not allow one to consider what if's might result in their spending more time in the hospital room and clinics, away from family and friends, than they would otherwise be willing to accept. In these scenarios, optimism may get a person farther and farther away from their goals (read Post 54: Why Should I Care about My "Goals of Care?").


It is possible to maintain positivity without clinging to optimism, even when dealing with difficult news. One may maintain hope for a positive outcome while understanding that they may have to adjust their outlook as the reality of the situation changes. Hope is the belief that you will be able to find a way forward, regardless of the situation, and that you will not be alone or abandoned. Underlying hope is the feeling that you still have control over aspects of your life, especially at a time when everything familiar to you is being impacted by your health - your lifestyle, your friendships, your career, your marriage, your body, your vision for your future.


Sometimes family members worry that their loved one will lose hope after hearing bad news, but it is possible to preserve hope even in the setting of serious news (read Post 17: How to Discuss Serious, Difficult, Hard to Hear, Bad News in Six Steps). A family member could reassure their loved one, "No matter what happens, you'll remain the boss and you make the decisions. We'll support anything you decide" or "If you're tired of talking about this and you want to focus on just positive things - like the kids coming over tonight! - let's do that. I'll talk to the doctors to come up with a plan that focuses on you staying home as much as possible and doing only stuff you feel like doing."

As I wrote in Post 17, optimism may be saying, "My end stage cancer will be cured with this drug. I will think only positive thoughts. I won't even consider what if's." Hope may be saying, "Whatever happens with this end stage cancer, I will do the best I can to choose what feels right for me at the time and I know I won't have to go through this alone. I still control my decisions. I have my family and friends to help me if I need help. I have my affairs in order in case this drug doesn't work out."


Recognizing the difference may enable us to realize when optimism may be keeping us stuck on one particular treatment path even when that path is no longer getting us what is most important to us (read Post 8: I Want the Best Care Possible for ME - Part 2 of 2).


We can still maintain hope - for ourselves and our loved ones - even as our health and medical condition changes. We may change what we hope for, but we can still hope.