When Dr. Jerome Groopman was a student at Columbia Medical School, he encountered a patient whom he would remember for the rest of his life: a fundamentalist Jewish woman suffering from breast cancer. When he asked her why she refused treatment for her disease, the woman confided in Groopman. She said she had been forced into an arranged marriage that so constricted her world that she could only find relief in an extramarital affair. After being diagnosed, she came to the conclusion that her cancer was God’s punishment. Groopman was profoundly shaken by the woman’s story, and found himself unable to convince her to fight the cancer.

This experience helped prompt him to explore the emotional side of the medical practice, specifically how people react to being faced with their mortality. On Thursday afternoon Groopman gave a lecture entitled “The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness,” at the School of Medicine before a crowd of doctors, medical students and community members. The lecture was a part of a series sponsored by the Program for Humanities in Medicine.

During the exploratory lecture, Groopman discussed what he said is often overlooked in medical practice — the ways in which patients deal with the emotions of facing a potentially terminal illness.

“Hope can only flourish when you believe that the future can be different from the present — that you have some level of control or choice,” Groopman, who is a professor at Harvard Medical School, said. “I ask myself, what beyond any medication I can proscribe or any procedure I can recommend can I give these people? Hope.”

Groopman shared anecdotes of patients who overcame overwhelming odds to survive life-threatening illnesses, sometimes due to the timely discovery of a new drug or sometimes the result of fortitude and optimism. He also traced the historical roots of hope from the Greek myth of Pandora’s Box to the modern day biological explanation of hope as a cognitive process. He stressed that hope cannot be categorized or simplified into a process, but rather that it is different for each patient. Above all, Groopman said people should never abandon hope entirely.

“People say where there is life, there is hope. I believe the flip side of that is true: where there is hope, there is life,” Groopman said.

Groopman said that in his experience, those patients who were able to analyze their situations rationally, clearly see a path through their obstacles, and receive support from loved ones were best equipped to survive.

Audience members expressed appreciation for the lecture.

“He was giving a thread of insight on something he’s observed, something he’s grappling with,” said Estelle Davis, a feminist health care lobbyist who said her battles with both aplastic anemia and non-Hodgekin’s lymphoma have given her a special perspective on the lecture’s subject.

James Lee MED ’06 said he also enjoyed Groopman’s talk.

“I think it’s very important that they’re exposing students early on to these concepts of death and hope,” Lee said. “Pre-med students tend to be very book-oriented, and I think the early exposure to these issues will help them acclimate. They will be aware that they will have to deal with patients who are dying.”

Groopman currently heads an experimental laboratory in Boston and runs a community outreach program designed to teach young people about the dangers of HIV/AIDS. He has written a book about hope that is due to come out in January 2004.

“It’s easy to be prepared for science, but not to be prepared for the soul,” Groopman said.