FEATURE — Winter 2009

A backer of lung cancer advocacy groups, Lori Hope supports the third annual Kites for Awareness fundraiser at the Marina Green in San Francisco, on August 8, 2009. (Photo: Max Morse)

Living in Hope

After being diagnosed with lung cancer, alumna Lori Hope used her skills as a journalist to write an affirmative book on how to approach and talk with those battling cancer.

by Steve Givens

Lori Hope, AB ’77, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002. Her innate openness and background as a journalist and documentary filmmaker naturally led her to start sharing her experience—with just about anyone. “Somebody at a grocery store would ask me how I was, and I’d say, ‘OK ... but I was just diagnosed with cancer,’” says Hope, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.

Most people, she says, would respond compassionately—but sometimes inappropriately—saying things like “Oh, no, you have cancer? My aunt died of cancer!” Or “What’s your prognosis?” She knew they meant well and didn’t mean to dash her hope, but that’s what happened during many of these conversations. As an antidote, her creative juices began to bubble.

Not long after her diagnosis, Hope, a resident of the San Francisco Bay area, went on a vacation planned months earlier with family and friends. Although excited about the getaway to a Northern California resort area, she nevertheless worried about her upcoming surgery and prognosis. Yet, she felt certain there must be something to be gained from her situation.

“I went outside and sat on the deck, listening to the roaring Russian River below,” she recalls, “and I wrote in my journal, ‘Somebody ought to write a book or make a documentary about how to support people with cancer, what to say and what to do.’”

At her doctor’s urging, she shelved the idea until the cancer was behind her. Then one day, months after treatment ended, while Hope was teaching a class on documentary production, one of her students noted that making documentaries and writing books were similar in terms of organizational principles and required skills, such as researching, planning, and thinking critically. The student asked Hope if she had ever considered writing a book. And so the idea, dormant for nine months, resurged. The result was Help Me Live: 20 Things People with Cancer Want You to Know, published in 2005 by Celestial Arts, an imprint of Random House. Ironically, the student who asked that question was the publisher.

“It was a natural culmination of my career up until that point as a writer, filmmaker, and commentator,” says Hope, a former smoker who quit almost 20 years before her diagnosis. “I love listening to stories, and although the cancer experience is different for every person, the feeling of fear and the need for hope and compassion are universal. They connect us across ethnicities, social class, and age. That’s what I enjoyed most about writing the book—finding that connection, that commonality, and sharing it.”

The book is an intimate guide for families, partners, and friends of individuals diagnosed with cancer, detailing 20 messages to help loved ones show how much they care and avoid inadvertently adding insult to injury. Because of all the diverse stories she collected, Hope realized that her book should not provide rigid advice.

“I think it’s important, however, to start with asking such questions of a person suffering cancer: ‘What is it that you need from me?’”

“No easy solutions exist here,” says Hope, who prefers the term “punched by cancer” to the euphemistic and less accurate “touched by cancer.” “I think it’s important, however, to start with asking such questions of a person suffering cancer: ‘What is it that you need from me? Would you like my advice, or do you just want me to listen? Do you want me to be here with you, or would you rather be alone?’ Asking permission is huge.”

An award-winning producer of more than 20 documentaries, a professional blogger, and a former medical reporter and newspaper editor, Hope loves using her skill and passion as a communicator to inspire others to find the pleasure in supporting those who are suffering, she says.

Following stints as a general assignment reporter, news anchor, and medical correspondent, Hope became a staff producer at the NBC television affiliate in Portland, Oregon, making documentaries about those on the edges of society, including the mentally ill, drug-addicted mothers, homeless families, and teenaged parents.

“I’ve always been interested in people and cultures, and I think that’s what drew me to journalism, and in particular to making documentaries,” says Hope, a self-described social activist since her high school days in St. Louis. “My initial impulse when almost anything happens to me is, ‘I should write about it’ or ‘This is a documentary.’ Ben Franklin once said, ‘The greatest question in life is what good will I do with it?’ And I interpret that to mean, ‘How will I use whatever experience, whatever suffering, that happens to me?’ So rather than just accept the suffering that comes along, I need to use it to help others to create something.”

Hope says the basic principles for helping those who have cancer are simple and universal, and all stem from the concept of “being there.”

“When you know somebody who’s been struck by cancer, you need to be there,” she says. “Yeah, you need to stop at the grocery store, and you need to feed your family. But when somebody you know has cancer and he or she needs your ear for half an hour, you should put that first, I believe. I think you establish yourself as a positive role model with your family when you show that as a priority.”

Hope (left) is with Tracy Sestilli, event organizer and founder of the nonprofit Beverly Fund.

Perhaps the most crucial thing Hope learned as a philosophy student at Washington University was to think critically and analyze and synthesize ideas. But she also learned compassion, she says. She recalls the class she took from famed writer and teacher Stanley Elkin and reading his book, The Franchiser, in which the main character—as did Elkin—struggles with the onset of multiple sclerosis.

“That was a very powerful influence, because it put me in the skin of somebody who was experiencing something that was just completely foreign to me. I think it taught me a certain kind of compassion,” says Hope, who has been featured nationally in the media since her book came out, including The Wall Street Journal and NBC’s Today show.

Tongue firmly planted in cheek, she says, Hope calls herself a “compassion evangelist.” But in reality, that description seems fairly apt. She spends much of her time these days traveling and speaking to groups large and small about the book’s message of hope and compassion, preaching “not to the choir, but to the masses,” she says. She also volunteers with several lung cancer organizations, including serving on the executive board of the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation. In the end, she says, the idea of hope outweighs all else for those battling cancer.

“Even when people do not survive cancer, they can be healed,” Hope says. “Obviously, survival is key, but so is healing. My focus is on helping people heal and live well, however much time they have left in their lives.”

Steve Givens is associate vice chancellor and executive director of the University News Service.

For more information, visit: lorihope.com.