Maintaining hope when faced with a cancer diagnosis

Having control over the decisions you make is the answer to maintaining hope, no matter what the outcome. Dr Michelle King explains further.

You can listen to this article below, or by using your favourite podcast player at

Receiving a diagnosis of cancer is the beginning of an unanticipated journey. It’s a journey of grief, whether you are the person living with cancer or a family member whose loved one has been diagnosed.

Grief isn’t just about death; it can be the anticipation of loss. This loss can be many things. It may be about coming to terms with death, but it can be about other losses too. This could include a loss of independence, a loss of income or a loss of sense of self.

This new journey can be scary, especially when you try to take on everything by yourself and don’t share your emotions with anyone else. Bottling up your fears and anxiety can lead to feelings of helplessness. One of the core concepts that creates helplessness is a feeling of a loss of control. It is that belief that you no longer have any power over your life and of not having the ability to make decisions anymore.

When left unchecked, helplessness can lead to depression. Being depressed has a snowball effect as it can lead to poorer treatment outcomes, increased pain levels and at worst, suicide.

Preserving a sense of hope

The opposite to feeling helpless is maintaining a sense of hope. Hope is defined as a feeling of expectation of a positive outcome. It’s a feeling of trust and is the belief that no matter what the adversity, the outcome will be good.

Holding onto impossible outcomes can have a negative impact though. One example of this is how some healthcare professionals fear that without the hope of a cure, patients and their families will give up hope. This belief can result in them holding back vital conversations around what would happen if the best possible outcome wasn’t obtained. Death is never discussed, and money and energy is spent on finding that one thing that may give one more day or one more week. But at what cost?

Sometimes we see a similar thought pattern within families where parents or loved ones may request that their doctor not tell the person who has cancer that they are dying. Again, the fear is that they will give up hope. But what this does is, it takes away so many things from the person who has the diagnosis. For example, they never get to say goodbye to their loved ones, or make amends were needed. They are kept in the dark of a personal journey that we will all take one day.

How to maintain hope when faced with a diagnosis of cancer

This leads to the question: how do you maintain hope when faced with a diagnosis of cancer? And this goes for the person living with cancer, their loved ones, as well as their treating healthcare professionals.

Step one: Don’t try take this journey alone. No matter how scary things may appear, being honest and open with someone who has a diagnosis of cancer is best, but it must be done in a caring and supportive manner. No matter how good your intentions might be, you can’t take away the personal journey that your loved one needs to travel while living with a diagnosis of cancer.

Step two: Manage hopelessness. You do this by having a plan so that you maintain a sense of control. How do you do this when faced with cancer? You have plan A and plan B. Plan B is about having a treatment plan in place which discusses all your fears and how you are going to manage them.

This includes having a conversation about what happens when you don’t want to continue with active treatment anymore. The plan needs to include discussions not only about how you are going to manage medical issues, such as symptoms of nausea or pain, but needs to include an end-of-life plan. Lastly, you need to have a plan for taking care of your emotional needs as well as practical issues.

Dr Michelle King

MEET THE EXPERT – Dr Michelle King

Dr Michelle King is part of an inter-disciplinary pain clinic and palliative care team in Limpopo. She has completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Chronic Pain Management and a Postgraduate Diploma in Palliative Medicine, and is the president of PainSA.

Header image by Freepik
cover 2024 BIG C - Preparing for treatment