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Rediscovering empathy: the content of hope

Emily Beckman, a visiting scholar in the Medical Humanities and Health Studies Program in the IU School of Liberal Arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the IU School of Medicine, spoke about empathy and hope at the Feb. 16 Poynter Center Healthcare Ethics Seminar.

Beckman presented the results of a qualitative study on the meaning of hope expressed by patients at various stages of treatment for colon cancer. She explored the possibility that what a patient hopes for may have a profound effect on discussions regarding the patient's treatment options and quality of life.

She noted that hope is not diminished by knowledge of the diagnosis or the prognosis. Though shared by all, hope is personal, and each person reacts differently.

Beckman looked at five themes:

  • The essential nature of hope -- "Hope is choosing to live."
  • The desire to return to normalcy.
  • A change in perspective that often includes a wish for peace and contentment and focuses less on material things and appearances.
  • A sharpening of future plans.
  • The hope to be cancer-free.

Beckman found that the subjects understood hope as being able to return to as close to normal as possible -- to go back to work, to enjoy food, to enjoy family and to return to old routines. Some people chose hope to mean using minimal treatment so they could continue to do something important to them as long as possible without the side effects of major treatments.

Beckman's teaching and research interests in medical humanities include literature and medicine, end-of-life communication and empathy in medicine. She hopes this small study will lead to a larger study.