Balancing Hope With Realism: Setting Expectations When Starting a New Cancer Treatment

February 20, 2024
Cristiane Decat Bergerot, PhD

Cristiane Decat Bergerot, PhD, is head of Supportive Care at Oncoclínicas in Brazil. Dr. Bergerot completed a 3-year research fellowship in the Department of Medical Oncology at the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center in Duarte, California. She has been working with people with cancer for 20 years as a clinician and as a researcher. Dr. Bergerot is an advisory panelist on the 2024 Cancer.Net Editorial Board. You can follow Dr. Bergerot on X, formerly known as Twitter.

In a world of rapid medical advancements and innovative cancer treatments, it's common for people with cancer to have high hopes if they’re going to receive a new treatment. However, setting and managing one’s expectations in the face of groundbreaking treatments is a vital aspect of the cancer journey. While some individuals may experience remarkable results with new treatments, many others may not.

One 2019 study, for example, found that a significant proportion of patients had unrealistic expectations about treatment with immunotherapy. This showed that health care providers need to communicate more effectively with their patients about what to expect from a treatment regimen.

Having accurate expectations around what your treatment will and will not do is not only crucial for making informed decisions during cancer, but also for protecting your emotional well-being. Here’s what to know about setting appropriate expectations when starting a new cancer treatment.

Setting realistic expectations of treatment outcomes

It is important to have an open and honest discussion with your health care team as you embark on a new treatment regimen, so you can establish realistic expectations. Ask your oncologist to provide a clear picture of what you can expect from the treatment based on your unique circumstances. Being well informed can help you manage your expectations.

In addition, it is important to recognize that how a cancer may respond to treatment can vary widely. Some people receiving a certain treatment may achieve complete responses, meaning there is no evidence of cancer remaining in their body. But others might experience different outcomes. Remember that everyone's cancer journey is unique. 

For many people, holding hope is crucial for maintaining emotional well-being during cancer. Hope can inspire and motivate. But it should also be balanced with realism. Understand that even if the treatment doesn’t deliver the results you hoped for, there may be other options or treatments to explore. When your health care team recommends a new treatment, talk with them about what they expect the treatment to do and not do.

Coping when your treatment outcomes do not meet your expectations

If your treatment does not deliver the results you expected, it's natural to experience a range of emotions. Coping with these feelings is an integral part of the process. Allow yourself to feel the full spectrum of emotions, such as disappointment, frustration, and sadness. Acknowledging your feelings is the first step in processing them.

If your emotions become overwhelming, a mental health professional may be able to help you. Therapists and counselors can provide strategies to cope with difficult emotions and improve your overall well-being. Connecting with others who are going through similar experiences can also be incredibly comforting. Support groups offer a safe space to share your feelings and receive guidance from those who understand what you may be going through. You can also find support through the internet. Online cancer communities and forums can provide a platform to share experiences, seek advice, and find emotional support. 

Remember that there are several resources available to help you navigate this emotional journey. Many organizations specialize in offering emotional support and resources for people with cancer. They can provide information, counseling, and connections to support groups. In addition, many health care facilities have mental health services available as part of their cancer care programs. These services can include therapy, counseling, and psychiatric support. Talk with your health care team about what resources may be available to you.

It's natural to hope for a complete recovery when you receive a new treatment, but maintaining a balance between hope and realism is important for your well-being.  Setting hopeful but realistic expectations can also help you manage episodes of disappointment, if they arise. By approaching your treatment with open communication, garnering emotional support as needed, and building resilience, you can better prepare yourself for the road ahead. Remember that your health care team, support network, and mental health practitioners are there to help guide you along the way.

The author has no relationships relevant to this content to disclose.

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