The Academy Awards for Cancer Survivors


Winning (and losing) the Academy Awards can be like fighting cancer.

Even if you didn’t watch the Academy Awards program on television recently, you likely heard about the unfortunate mix up with the “Best Picture” award.

The presenters were handed the wrong envelope and consequently, the grand prize was awarded to the wrong movie—at least for two minutes. It took that long for stunned stage hands, show producers and security personnel (the folks who tabulate and guard the secret ballots) to catch their collective breaths and announce that a terrible mistake had been made.

In the blink of an eye, the coveted Oscar was ripped from the hands and hearts of the movie makers of “La La Land” and turned over to their rightful owners, the makers of “Moonlight”—best picture of the year.

Like millions who tuned in to watch the show, I felt the anguish, frustration and disappointment of both groups—one of which had just accepted their “loss” and had begun a movie makers grieving process, and the other who had made their acceptance speeches, ecstatic in their “win” only to find that none of it was true.

I wondered why this uncomfortable feeling that I was experiencing at that moment was so familiar to me. I think it was because that’s what cancer survivors experience with some regularity.

Sometimes we are told that things look pretty grim and that our cancer is winning the battle in our bodies. Perhaps we opt to try an experimental drug in a clinical trial. Perhaps we do nothing. But sometimes, in what seems to be a miracle moment, our cancer goes into remission. And we all know the stories about survivors whose cancer simply disappears. It happens.

Imagine opening the Oscar envelope and seeing that we’ve been given that grand prize, the Academy Award of cancer—the pronouncement that we are declared NED (no evidence of disease), only to have our stage hand (in this case our oncologist) rush up and say, “Oh, sorry. I gave you the wrong envelope.”

Cancer has many different degrees of celebration and disappointment, and those of us afflicted learn to live with that—because we have to. Every human life has its ups and downs, challenges and surprises. But in the case of cancer, the outcome has the potential to change many lives, not just our own. All who know us are affected in some way by our cancer story. Our friends and families wait for the news of our survival—news that can literally shift from day to day. And once the outcome is announced, as in the Academy Awards, we expect that it’s over and done. But as we’ve seen from the recent Oscar fiasco, the news can change in the blink of an eye. Celebration can turn to heartbreak and disappointment to unbounded joy.

The lesson here, I think, is in our ability to focus on the “big picture” as it was. Those of us who have been at this cancer drill for a time understand that we can never know for certain what the outcome of our therapies, programs and procedures will be until the “envelope is opened,” and hopefully we can then step up to make our acceptance speech. And so it seems to boil down to the “making of our cancer movie” rather than the final outcome of it that gives us the ability to shoulder what can sometimes be a daily grind of survival. There are no actors in the world of cancer, but there are tales of courage and survival that read like great screen plays.

And even if circumstances change the “plot” of our cancer story, at the end of the day, we can never lose our star power. Anyone who wakes up every morning with the drive and commitment to either beat cancer or live masterfully alongside it has earned far more than a mere Oscar.

They deserve the “lifetime achievement” award.

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