A few unfeeling words by an individual in a white coat can play havoc with human hope. A feeling word can ensure hope's survival.

Vee Burke, an analyst at the Library of Congress, is the widow of Vincent Burke, a Los Angeles Times reporter who died of cancer almost three years ago. In a new American Cancer Society film, "Patients and Doctors," she tells how:

"Vince had pancreatic cancer, and we were on an emotional roller coaster . . . A young man with a white coat, a medical student or intern or resident, came in . . .

"He said to Vince, 'What was your profession?' "

Astounded, Vee Burke quickly said, "What is his profession?"

"He stared at me," she remembers, "then he said, 'Well, you are an optimist.' "

"We were no optimists," she says. "We knew that our days were numbered. But we were living together, loving together, working together and clinging to a little hope."

She tells, too, of a doctor who helped her and her husband maintain at least a shred of hope: "He said to Vince, 'When you play tennis again . . .' It was a great help."

Vincent Burke lived only a short time longer, but, she says, "He had to have some hope."

-- Victor Cohn