If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, it can be hard to feel hopeful about the future, regardless of your prognosis. Learning that you or someone you care about has cancer and will need treatment can feel overwhelming. In addition, we’ve all been living in a pandemic since early 2020, and life may look different than what you expected. It can be easy to give up hope for a better future.
First, know that it’s normal to feel this way.
“When you go through challenging circumstances for an extended time, it’s normal to settle into resigned acceptance,” says Mark Flanagan, LCSW, MPH, MA, a Piedmont outpatient oncology social worker. “You may reach a point where everything gets to be too much, and you feel overwhelmed and hopeless.”
What does hope look like?
“Hope isn’t just an idea,” says Flanagan. “Hope mainly results in a change in your thoughts and actions. When we live with hope, we have a degree of flexibility and possibility. We leave space to allow change to happen.”
When you have hope, you can do practical, positive things for yourself that help shift your mindset and nourish your spirit.
“Hope means actively envisioning the kind of future you want for yourself and your loved ones,” he says. “It takes a different part of the brain to think about what kind of world we want to live in.”
What does hopelessness look like?
When you feel hopeless, says Flanagan, you may experience:
“These feelings tend to be inspired by fear,” he says. “When we don’t have trust in the future or feel like change is possible, that’s the opposite of a hopeful mindset.”
How to be more hopeful during hard times
While it may feel impossible to change, know that pursuing hope can have amazing positive effects on your physical and mental health, regardless of your circumstances.
“Hope is the fuel that drives both mental and physical health,” says Flanagan. “Without hope, we wouldn’t have any reason to put in work to make ourselves healthier. If we don’t have hope, we don’t believe in the possibility of change or a better future. When we remain open to the possibility of change, we maximize the potential of our spirit.”
Here are some tips to get started:
Consider what has helped you cope in the past. “This isn’t the first challenge you’ve gone through,” he says. “You have resources and strengths from previous challenges. You’re stronger than you think, and your resources never leave you. You just need to be reminded of them.”
Seek support. Getting support can help you have more hope. Talk to a therapist, family member, friend or support group. You can even reach out to others online.
“The worst thing you can do is to try to go through life alone,” says Flanagan. “When we get depressed and anxious, we tend to isolate ourselves from others, which reinforces distorted thoughts we may have about ourselves and the world.”
Journal regularly. “Often, people don’t have an outlet or someone to whom they can vent,” he says. “Journaling is a free way to do that. You can express anything you want—good, bad or ugly. No one has to see it. A journal is a great place to figure out what you need to say.”
Find a creative outlet. “When we’re in survival mode, the first thing to go is often creative expression,” says Flanagan. “When you have a creative outlet, you act out hope by creating something that hasn’t existed before.”
A creative outlet can look like:
Landscaping or gardening
Knitting, sewing or crocheting
“When you create something new, you’re tapping into the fundamental force of hope in the universe, which is creative,” he says. “When you create something, you’re bringing more of that energy into the world.”
Inspire others. “You’re not the only one who’s struggling,” says Flanagan. “We can become very focused on our own pain, which only amplifies it. When we get outside of ourselves and help others, we can not only lessen our pain, but remind ourselves that we’re stronger than we think.”
Consider volunteering, calling a loved one you haven’t talked to in a while, donating to a good cause or offering words of wisdom to people online.
Take back control of your life. “No matter what happens in your external environment, you always have control over how you approach challenges,” he says. “Things will get better when you decide they’ll get better. You have to choose if you want to continue to live without hope or if you want to make responsible, reasonable changes. Put the locus of control back inside yourself rather than in external circumstances.”
When to seek help for hopelessness
Sometimes, we need additional resources to find hope again. If you still feel hopeless after implementing these tips, talk to your primary care provider, oncologist or counselor for support.
If you or a loved one has thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
Learn more about support during the cancer journey.