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Cancer, hope and daring to live

To be hopeful, to help one another and to go along with the changes in life. These are actions that can help people find safety in the event of a serious illness such as cancer, according to Ulrika Sandén. She recently defended her PhD thesis in Innovation Engineering at Lund University’s Faculty of Engineering (LTH). The thesis is about living with cancer.

– Published 3 December 2021

a person sitting in the foreground looking out at a stormy sea. Photo.
Finding contentment in the moment can be a way forward in case of severe illness. Photo: Deniz Fuchidzhiev/Unsplash

People who suspect that something is wrong, with symptoms that have yet to be explained, often find themselves in a kind of waiting room. The wait can continue for a long time, and in that void, many thoughts and feeling usually arise that are hard to deal with. Once the cancer diagnosis is confirmed, the initial wait for the results is over, but another period of waiting and other emotions take over. Physical and mental symptoms need to be dealt with, and it is not unusual to experience a fear of death.

A path to safety

Ulrika Sandén interviewed people with cancer and their relatives. Many of them bear witness to the passive waiting they have experienced. With the help of user-driven innovation, Ulrika Sandén explored how Momentary Contentment Theory can be used to find alternatives to waiting, and paths to increased security. The theory is based on companionship, proactivity, and acceptance of life’s unpredictability – and it contributes to cognitive and emotional ways to feel safe and find enjoyment in life despite an illness.

It is a form of destiny readiness. An acceptance of life’s unpredictability, and a way to become resilient in the fluctuations of a life that occur when one has cancer, according to Ulrika Sandén.

“By letting go of passive hope for good results, and instead preparing yourself for different kinds of outcomes, it may keep you from dwelling on it, which is a big part of the anxiety so many people struggle with,” she says.

Filling the present with value

In her research, Ulrika Sandén also addresses middle consciousness, a concept that together with activity and destiny readiness capture the ability to handle life´s most difficult situations. As a patient, many new situations in life need to be dealt with at the same time as your body is not feeling well. In order to cope with everyday life, you may need to place certain emotions and experiences in a middle consciousness, a kind of standby mode.

“For example, you can use black humor, nature experiences, and art to reduce anxiety in everyday life,” says Ulrika Sandén.

Momentary Contentment Theory explains and illustrates how it is possible to take oneself back to the present moment through activity, and by dividing your time into shorter intervals. Here is how Ulrika summarizes her work:

“By dividing time into smaller units and combining that with activities, you can better handle difficult situations than by just being passive. Activities make you stay in the moment, and in the moment there is always something to do to make life a little bit better. Each time difficulties are dealt with there is an increase in hopefulness, an inner hope that says, ‘I can do this’,” says Ulrika Sandén.

Her own experience as inspiration for research

Ulrika Sandén has her own experience with cancer as a patient and a relative. She is not doing research on herself per se, but in the course of her work on the thesis, she was able to make use of her own experiences as a source of inspiration along with her deep rooted understanding.

“It is absolutely fantastic that I have been able to go from practicing reading, to finding my way home and making coffee all the way to defending my PhD thesis. I just had to immerse myself in this journey,” says Ulrika Sandén.

portrait of Ulrika Sandén. Photo.

Ulrika Sandén

Ulrika Sandén’s thesis is available at Lund University Research Portal: The art of bouncing back: Patient perspective on cancer rehabilitation.

Ulrika Sandén’s research, based on the patient perspective, is useful for patients, relatives and healthcare professionals. Work is now underway on a report containing concrete suggestions and tips related to patients’ everyday lives.