After being diagnosed with cancer, hope can be a very fragile thing, but it is essential that we hold on to it.
In “Hope as a Strategy,” authors Dr. Ernest Rosenbaum and Dr. David Spiegel of Stanford point out, “For patients with cancer, the future is often unknown, and hope is what keeps them alive to endure treatments and social and personal adversities. Hope is supported by the positive attitudes of the medical team, but can also be very fragile.”
To this I would add that hope is even more so supported by the positive attitude of the person stricken with cancer. To say this hope is fragile is an understatement.
For me, after reading only five people out of 100 with pancreatic cancer see five years, I really didn’t think I would be around these nine years later. Back then, hope seemed like another four-letter word. I had none. I renewed the life-insurance policy I luckily had and updated my will.
Any cancer news is terrifying, but for some, it shreds us in ways words cannot express. When I got my news, I didn’t expect to be there for any of my three daughters’ big days. This broke my father’s heart. The preacher’s famous words, “Who gives this woman?” met by blank silence. Thankfully two of them are now married. I am holding on for the third.
No matter how bad our news seems, there are always reasons to hope. Don’t get me wrong, I am not talking about that jacked-up type of hope one gets by reading inspirational quotes or listening to upbeat music. I am talking about real hope rooted in the reality of our situation. To have this, we need to embrace what we’re up against. This is the essence of real hope. Hyped-up hope is useless.
Before I got my sad news, I had a good friend who was stricken with brain cancer. Whenever I attempted to talk with him about how he was feeling, all I got was, “I’m healed.” This ended our conversation. How does one respond to this? A year later, out of deep respect for him, shattered, I attended his memorial service.
So how do we go about hanging on to hope when our situation seems beyond hopeless?
Look at what the data says.
As hard as it is, we need to look at the data. I’m not talking about Google searches that often turn up specious websites offering snake oil remedies, I’m talking about reputable sites like the American Cancer Society, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Also, depending on the specific type of cancer there are excellent organizations that offer reputable information about every type of cancer imaginable. Seek these out. Find out what the data says.
Understand there may be something beyond this.
I suppose this is easier for a person of faith, but quite challenging for others. I would offer much like Alcoholics Anonymous members profess allegiance to a “higher power” one needn’t be religious to believe there is something beyond us. For me, much of this has centered around believing my life is a line, not a dot, or one might say a continuum of both past and yet-to-be-lived experiences. I have no idea what may be next, but I do believe there is a next. This belief has helped me hold up under the crushing weight of my life-ending news.
Understand there may be something beyond this. Understand that it can be far worse.
No matter how terrifying our news may be, others get far worse news. Any type of cancer is terrifying in its own special way. Questions like, “Is it treatable?” or “What’s the survival rate?” are stuck in our mouths. We want to ask them, but don’t want to hear the answers.
When I mustered up the courage to ask my doctor, “What’s my survival chances? She simply replied, “No one knows.” No matter how treatable, cancer’s outcome is subject to its course in that person. Hence no one can say, “My cancer is worse than yours.” Any cancer can kill. Understand it can be far worse.
I’ve also found that it is important to talk things out, whether it be to a good friend who avoids offering platitudes about beating cancer or a therapist trained in dealing with the sundry of mental health issues cancer can cause. I remain amazed at how this forces me to put words around what I am feeling. Up to this point, the feelings spin around and around, whipsawing me. Only when I talk it out do these feelings become understandable. Once understandable, I can take action to deal with them.
Hang on tight to hope.
Everyone needs to hang on tight to hope no matter how tenuous our grip. It’s the essence of our future. Without it, the endless ups and downs of our treatments can and will crush us.
There are a lot of reasons to hope. For some, we need to live for something beyond ourselves. While others need to live just because they have more living to do. Anchoring ourselves in the future while at the same time accepting how tenuous it is vital.
Hope is all we have.
A lot has been said about the importance of hope in fighting cancer, but from my reading, due in large part to our inability to measure someone’s hope, there are no clinical studies demonstrating “x” amount of hope equals a “y” survival rate. Yet there is plenty of evidence that people who remain hopeful seem to fare better than those who lose hope. Many have postulated ideas why this is but from what I can tell no one fully understands it. But, and again, people who remain hopeful often prevail.
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