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Holding on to Hope

by Clare Butt, RN, MSN, AOCN, PhD(c)

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For most people, hope is impor­tant throughout their lives’ journeys. However, it can be­come even more so after receiving a cancer diagnosis. Cancer can change a person’s view of life, and holding on to hope during these times of change can be a challenge. Surprisingly, however, many people find their hope becomes stronger because of cancer.

So what is hope? A good description of hope can be found in Emily Dickin­son’s poem “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.

Emily Dickinson has captured the con­cept of hope by portraying it as a bird. This image fits well with what some survivors experience.

Capturing the idea of hope is difficult because it is alive and always changing, just as a bird is always on the move. However, we can follow the bird’s ac­tion and flight and learn something about its nature. Dickinson’s image of the bird, which “perches in the soul,” embodies the need for this perching or presence of hope throughout all of life. While sing­ing “the tune without the words,” it “never stops at all.”

It’s easy to imagine the wings of a bird expanding to the left and to the right, flapping in the air, and adjusting to the variations in the wind, thus pro­ducing flight. Applied to hope, the challenges of living with cancer can be said to provide the psychic energy that can expand a person’s viewpoint, just as the wings of the bird expand to provide for flight. Indeed, an ex­panded view of the world can be seen from the perspective of flight. Many cancer survivors find new meaning through illness, redefining what is im­portant to them.

According to Emily Dickinson, hope can be found in every circumstance, even “in the chillest land, and on the strangest sea.”

Author of Article photo

Clare Butt

Opposites may exist in a person’s experiences during the journey through cancer. These may include sorrow and gratitude, inner strength and weakened abilities, withdrawing and embracing. Perseverance or persistent resolve may be the factor that kindles or gives energy to the unfolding that leads to uplifting possibilities. This uplifting, once again, brings to mind a bird in flight.

Emily Dickinson’s poem goes on to say that hope is heard “sweetest in the gale.” Hope’s capacity to endure is great, since, as the poem states, “sore must be the storm that could abash the little bird that kept so many warm.” Some­times cancer survivors may struggle to bring life into balance. Some find that reflecting on their lives’ journeys in order to bring it all together meaning­fully is aided by the cancer experience. Hope is paramount as the past is revis­ited and renewed from the perspective of the present.

According to Emily Dickinson, hope can be found in every circumstance, even “in the chillest land, and on the strangest sea.” But how do you hold on to hope when times are tough? Each person must find his or her own ways to hold on to hope. See if any of these suggestions may work for you:

  • Look for meaning in things that are larger than you. Maybe it’s through nature, spirituality, or connectedness to a faith community.
  • Anticipate survival. Many people have gone before you. Picture yourself among them – after treatment and doing well.
  • Ask ques­tions. You have a right to know about your care. Don’t be afraid to ask the ques­tions that can put your wor­ries to rest.
  • Seek affirming relationships. Fam­ily, friends, and pets can be a source of comfort to get you through hard times.
  • Turn to your inner resources. We all have more inside than we might imagine. Be gentle with yourself, and celebrate the little things in life that bring you joy.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Clare Butt is an oncology nurse who has worked with cancer survivors for 15 years. She is currently a doctoral candi­date in the Connell School of Nursing at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, MA.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2012.

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