13 March 2023
By Tim Baker
You hear and read a lot in oncology about the dangers of offering false hope to cancer patients. From spurious folk remedies and snake oil to the uncertain benefits of nutrition and emotional healing, the medical mainstream is keen to protect its vulnerable patients from anyone offering them a too rosy assessment of their prognosis or unproven paths to good health. Fair enough.
But is there such a thing as healthy hope, giving cancer patients a sense of optimism that there are ways to improve quality of life and mitigate the side effects of treatment, at the very least, through their own determined lifestyle strategies? And that if they become pro-active players in maintaining their own health, they might even improve their chances of being around if and when better treatment options become available?
Personally, 7.5 years into an advanced prostate cancer diagnosis, I am all for a little hope, a sense it is worth my while to work hard at my health, to exercise, eat well, reduce stress, educate myself about my condition and understand treatment options.
And there’s another kind of hope that helps keep me going, an awareness that there are legions of highly qualified and intelligent people all over the world researching better cancer treatments. The pace of medical progress in cancer research sometimes appears glacial, by the time trials are conducted, approvals granted, before it percolates through the system and becomes an accepted part of standard care and considered for inclusion in the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to make it affordable. You wouldn’t want to hold your breath while waiting for a new cancer treatment to become available. Even so there appears to be a growing consensus that we stand on the cusp of a whole new generation of more targeted cancer treatments, and this is cause for hope.
Our job is to stay fit and healthy for as long as possible to take advantage of these advances. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to learn a bit more about some of these advances and it is hugely heartening to know how many people are focussed on coming up with less toxic alternatives to traditional hormone therapy. I happen to believe hope is an overwhelmingly good and healthy thing for cancer patients. Lord knows, there’s enough despair and hopelessness wrapped up in the whole cancer experience. Why wouldn’t you want to let a little light in?
All this has been much on my mind lately as I read one of the cheerier cancer books I’ve come across lately called, appropriately enough, “Hope – A Cancer Doctor’s Secrets” by Dr David Schlect and Damian Mason. Schlect is a consultant radiation oncologist at the Wesley Hospital in Brisbane, who introduced stereotactic radiosurgery to Queensland. Mason is a radiation therapist with 20 years’ experience, a degree in psychology from University of Queensland and an honours degree from the Australian Catholic University. His focus is on counselling cancer patients. So they know their stuff.
Their central thesis is that cancer patients who “choose to live” cope best with their cancer experience. By “choose to live” they mean “patients who choose to pursue and participate in life”. This might sound simplistic, or easier said than done, but research supports their contention that those cancer patients who manage to maintain their social connection, their professional life or other life interests have better outcomes to those who withdraw from everyday living, “The choice to continue to live appears to act as a buffer against the ill winds of the cancer diagnosis,” they write.
Conversely, those who withdraw are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression in a compounding downward spiral. Knowing this, why wouldn’t we try and offer cancer patients a little more hope? Hope that their own efforts might improve their quality of life, reduce side effects of treatment, elevate mood, maybe even give them a better chance of sticking around longer.
Cancer patients are vulnerable to false hope and we rightly guard against the vultures spruiking snake oil. But healthy hope, it seems to me, helps us get out of bed each day believing we can do something to improve our lives and our health, through good nutrition, exercise, stress reduction, those things that bring us joy and a sense of flow. Like chemotherapy that can harm healthy cells along with cancerous ones, efforts to extinguish false hope should not eradicate the entirely positive forces of healthy hope to improve our lives and well-being.
Schlect D, Mason D, 2014, HOPE – A Cancer Doctor’s Life Secrets, Self-published.
Sharpley CF, Bitsika V, Christie DRH, 2007. ‘Causal mapping of depression and anxiety among prostate cancer patients: A Preliminary Study’, The Journal of Men’s Health and Gender, Vol. 4, No. 4, pp. 402-408.
About the Author
Tim Baker is an award-winning author, journalist and storyteller specialising in surfing history and culture, working across a wide variety of media from books and magazines to film, video, and theatre. Some of his most notable books include “Occy”, a national bestseller and chosen by the Australia Council as one of “50 Books You can’t Put Down” in 2008, and “The Rip Curl Story” which documents the rise of the iconic Australian surf brand to mark its 50th anniversary in 2019. Tim is a former editor of Tracks and Surfing Life magazines. He has twice won the Surfing Australia Hall of Fame Culture Award.
Tim was diagnosed with Stage 4, metastatic prostate cancer in 2015 with a Gleason score 9. He was told he had just five years of reasonable health left, but seven years on, at 57, he’s still surfing, writing, and enjoying being a dad. His latest book, Patting The Shark, also documents his cancer journey and will be published in August. Tim will be sharing weekly insights into his journey to help other men who have also been impacted by prostate cancer.