Cancer Can Be Finite: Giving Hope at Diagnosis


Hope? Several years out, a breast cancer and melanoma survivor contemplates what comforted her and could have comforted at the time of diagnosis and early in her treatment.

There are no two ways about it. Hearing the three words “You have cancer” stinks. When I heard those words, I thought I was dying and pretty imminently at that. Where is the hope? Cancer is a game changer, a deal changer and a life changer. Cancer is big. There is no going back from that moment. You can never look at the world the same way again. However, there were some words of comfort that truly helped me and I hope you find comfort in them too.

My oncology talk therapist told me, “We will get you through this.” At that moment, I didn’t feel so alone with my diagnosis. I also realized that however big cancer was feeling to me, especially in those early days and weeks, it was something that I was going to get through. That meant cancer was finite. Cancer had limited power even though it still felt big and scary and overwhelming to me.

The other words that actually comforted me came at a breast cancer support group meeting. One of the other cancer survivors shared something a survivor friend of hers had told her: “It is a tough year and half to two years, but then things start to get better.”

She said hearing those words gave her perspective. Cancer is smaller when it seems like it might be finite.

Now I know that cancer sometimes never leaves or it can sometimes come back, but I liked hearing that what another survivor said was also a possibility. Hearing a concrete amount of time for cancer creates a window of hope at the end of what feels like a very dark and never-ending tunnel at the time of diagnosis.

It makes me wonder: Why doesn’t the doctor delivering the bad news grab your hand and say, “I know you are scared. We will get you through this”? Why doesn’t the doctor at diagnosis tell you that cancer treatment can sometimes be a finite process? Yes, sometimes there are quite a few surgeries and chemotherapy and other treatments, but why not offer a little hope on the front end? Cancer isn’t always an immediate death sentence. In fact, cancer isn’t always a death sentence at all. There is hope.

The emotional upheaval, fear and isolation that cancer creates is real. I wish it was acknowledged and treated better early on. It is one thing to go through the physical pain of the cancer treatments. It is another to suffer emotionally more than — than what? I don’t know. We all process things differently and we all have different diagnoses but yet, what about some acknowledgement and kindness in the beginning? What about being handed the name and number of a talk therapist who specializes in cancer patients, or given the contact information for a leader of a cancer support group or a survivor further out in their treatment who is willing to help a newbie? Connecting with others who understand cancer and have been there is so important!

Every doctor handles things a little differently. I figure that it is no fun to deliver crappy news. Maybe the strategy is to get in and out quickly, and then let the patient seek comfort from family and friends or learn how to find help on the Internet. In fact, the Internet was actually how I found my breast cancer support group. If I were the doctor, I would want some tools in my hands to address my patients’ emotions and not just the disease. What do you think? How was your diagnosis handled? What would you have liked your diagnosing doctor to have handled differently? What gave you comfort and hope early in your diagnosis and treatment?

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