As an oncologist and hematologist, Jerome Groopman has spent his career working primarily with cancer and AIDS patients. It might seem unlikely, then, that he would write a book about hope, or that such a book would contain anything but wishful thinking.
But The Anatomy of Hope is a sober and thoughtful book with real medical value. In his introduction, Groopman, who is also a staff writer for The New Yorker, admits that he was once cynical of claims that hope could affect a patient’s physical and mental health. “I slammed the door on hope and closed off my mind to seriously considering it as a catalyst in the crucible of cure,” he writes. The Anatomy of Hope chronicles the gradual opening of his mind, an education that was both professional and personal.
It wasn’t always easy. Using medical case studies from his own career, Groopman illustrates how doctors can rely too heavily on optimism or harsh reality in the face of a grave prognosis. He describes how he gradually learned to live in the middle ground, neither shielding patients from the truth nor allowing them to be overcome by fear and doubt.
Groopman’s love for his work is clear in his heartfelt and engaging writing about his patients. He goes to great lengths to describe their diagnoses and how they reacted to their illnesses. The reader can chart Groopman’s understanding of the power of hope through his detailed observations and reactions to his patients’ cases. He leads readers through one case involving a man with profoundly advanced non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer of the respiratory system. Despite Groopman’s assurances that his chances of survival were better than 50-50, the patient had already given up. The process of convincing this man he could be cured, and the vindication of his survival and continued health, became a cornerstone of Groopman’s education in the power of hope.
If there is a weakness in The Anatomy of Hope, it is the section where Groopman analyzes research on the physiological and mental components of hope. While this section offers key support to his thesis, its tone and style depart drastically from those of previous chapters. From the inviting and even conversational style of most of his book, Groopman abruptly shifts to more technical discussions of research and theory. The majority of The Anatomy of Hope is captivating enough to read in one sitting, but this jump is likely to disorient a reader who had been previously engaged by Groopman’s writing. It is a shame that Groopman couldn’t make this important clinical section as accessible to the lay reader as his case studies.
In his final analysis, Groopman recognizes that research on hope and healing is in its infancy. But he notes that it has already changed his own practice of medicine. “We are just beginning to appreciate hope’s reach and have not defined its limits,” he writes in his book’s conclusion.“I see hope as the very heart of healing.”