On Hope and Cancer


One of the greatest challenges we face as cancer survivors is the balancing act between hope and the “reality” of the illness.

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all

-Emily Dickinson

I was doing some, pre-spring, cleaning recently and came across the t-shirt from my first Relay for Life. The event took place on June 6, 2010, the day after my last chemotherapy session. It was a typical southern Virginia afternoon where the heat and humidity we both racing toward an all-time high. As my wife, Kathy, and I took to the track for the victory lap—the black tar surfacing feeling very much like a frying pan ready for a batch of fried chicken—we joked about how ironic it would be to have survived cancer treatment only to succumb to heat stroke while celebrating. (Such was the gallows humor we had grown accustomed to during cancer recovery.)

What struck me was the word "Hope" emblazed across the front the shirt. I was reminded that hope, from old English hopa, means “confidence in the future.” Here was a reminder of the challenge of trying to find that confidence during my journey through cancer. There was the hope that the initial x-ray showed a harmless shadow, and not a tumor. There was the hope that I could avoid surgery, that chemotherapy would not be recommended, that side-effects would be manageable, that follow-up tests would be negative, and on and on.

One of the greatest challenges we face as cancer survivors is the balancing act between hope and the “reality” of the illness. For some, the diagnosis itself is enough to extinguish the flame of “everything will be OK.” For others, the diagnosis becomes the fuel that turns the kindling of hope into a raging fire of faith. Many, like me, feel the waves of hope rise and fall as a result of the gravitational pull of circumstances. Waiting for test results, I’m surrounded by swells of hopefulness. While wondering if a pain, rash or lump is a sign of the return of the beast brings in a tsunami of “Not again!”

As someone who has entered the cancer journey with a long history of anxiety behind him, I've learned to see hope in a new way. Rather than it being the key to my survival, or, on the other side, a false sense of security, I see it as a reflexive response to uncertainty. As a mechanism for self-preservation, hope arises along with the flight or fight response and works to recalibrate the mind toward its basic instinct for survival. This movement toward equilibrium helps to reset the emotional vibrations in the body that seek harmony in the face of illness.

Thankfully, I've found that hope is there even during times when I've abandoned it. I see it in the eyes of fellow survivors when I return to the oncology office and hear it in the nervous jokes I tell others about the cancer experience. I've come to accept that, even when I'm not feeling very confident about the future, I can still hear that little bird singing, and the tune is music to my ears and my soul.

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Dr. Kelly Stratton
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