An important—but sometimes very difficult—part of battling cancer is staying hopeful. While you are dealing with a new normal, while you’re feeling unwell from treatment side effects and grappling with an unknown future, it can be hard to stay optimistic. But after working as a medical oncologist for more than 25 years, Harmesh Naik, M.D., has a few tips for keeping the faith.
“As a physician, you learn the science of cancer, but as a human being, you learn the art of cancer—which focuses on hope,” says Dr. Naik. “Hope is one of my favorite subjects to talk about. What I’ve learned over many years is that instilling yourself with hope can start on day one of your cancer diagnosis, or even on the day you suspect cancer. Hope is like knowledge. The more you use it, the more powerful it gets. My job is to help foster and nurture that hope.”
Here is what he advises.
Create short-term goals.
When someone is diagnosed with cancer, they often have two initial questions: Will I be cured? And if not, how long do I have to live?
“I tell my patients I don’t know the exact answer to that—and I’ll find out—but in the meantime, let’s focus on living,” says Dr. Naik. “It’s about changing the conversation. Not to distract someone, because cure is very important, but to start instilling faith and hope.”
Creating short-term goals can lift your spirits and keep you focused on living in the moment. “Each patient has a different short-term goal; a different definition of hope,” says Dr. Naik. “Whether it’s seeing a family member’s graduation, finishing a knitting project or learning a new song, their answers are so unique. I once had a patient with stage four cancer. I asked what her hope was and how I could help her achieve it. She said she wanted to live to summer to see her tomato plants grow. I still have a picture she brought me, sometime that July, and her tomato plants were taller than her. Her hope was simple but it brought her so much happiness and peace.”
Know there will be obstacles along the way.
“I often use an analogy of a road trip,” says Dr. Naik. “We’re going to start a journey from Detroit to Chicago but there might be a blizzard in Kalamazoo, construction at St. Joseph. There may be a few different detours, but we will reach our destination.”
Your detours could be feeling physically unwell or just feeling defeated. After all, regardless of how much hope you arm yourself with, everyone always has down days. That’s okay. Let yourself grieve, give yourself time, but know this feeling won’t last forever. “When hard times hit, that's when you really need to rely on your short-term goals to bring you joy, to help you build faith again,” says Dr. Naik.
Even still, there will be moments of joy and happiness intertwined right alongside your obstacles. “And some of these obstacles could end up being blessings in disguise. The journey is sometimes more important than the destination,” he says.
When you reach your goal, celebrate!
Celebrate however you feel comfortable, whether that’s by going out to dinner, throwing a small party, buying a new book, taking a trip or attending a loved one’s birthday. When you can celebrate milestones—big or small—it can keep your spirits up and strengthen your hope.
After you’ve celebrated your goal, create a new one. “Hope is a multiplier,” says Dr. Naik. “Creating one hope, and then another—it builds up to multiple tangential hopes. When you have one hope fulfilled, it breeds more hopes and that brings more happiness. It improves your physical health, your mental health. It brings more meaning to life. Hope is such a powerful feeling.”
Do things you haven’t done before, whether large or small.
Staying hopeful is important whether you’re undergoing treatment, waiting upon test results or even if you’re a cancer survivor. To help ease anxieties of cancer recurrence, Dr. Naik encourages his patients to celebrate life by doing something new. “Fly a kite or scream out in happiness,” he says. “It might sound silly, but even something as small as that can be exhilarating. Or write a poem. It doesn’t matter if you’re a writer.”
You could also try these three simple things that Dr. Naik himself does, which bring him an immediate sense of happiness and calm: Watch a butterfly, gaze at a blue sky or see a sunrise.
Of course, you can plan something bigger, too. “One of my patients drove a Mustang on a motor speedway,” says Dr. Naik. “You have to see the joy and happiness on his face when he’s talking about it. Doing new things helps us become even more courageous and more joyful than we were before cancer. It helps liberates us from the fear of cancer and it causes a ripple effect. It helps free us from other fears we may have in life.”
And you never know—even with cancer, silver linings can be found in the least expected places.
“I once had a patient who was very sad most of the time,” says Dr. Naik. “When he finished treatment a year later, he told me something that has been very hard to forget. His son had found out he had cancer, who he had been estranged from. My patient said, ‘Dr. Naik, it took this cancer for me to get my son back. You never would’ve hoped for cancer, but it turned out in the end—I now have my son again. The first thing we’re going to do is go out to dinner, then we’ll play 18 holes together.’”
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Harmesh Naik, M.D., is a medical oncologist and member of the Henry Ford Cancer Institute. He treats those diagnosed with lung cancer, breast cancer and lymphoma, among other types of cancers. He sees patients at Henry Ford Cancer – Brownstown Township, Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital and Henry Ford Medical Center — Fairlane.