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Staying Hopeful When the Odds of Surviving Cancer Are Long


The trick is remembering that odds don't matter.

As a professional researcher living in a world of probabilities and statistics, I am used to working with odds and likelihoods. As a person, though, it is very difficult to keep all that training in mind when faced with a poor prognosis.

Two months after my husband and I were married, he was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer and we were told that the five-year survival rate for this type of cancer was less than five percent. How do you adjust to that kind of information? How do you keep any hope alive?

I forced myself to remember that probabilities have no meaning when you’re talking about a single person. Probabilities predict outcomes for groups: In this case, the statistics were saying that, in general, five people out of 100, who were diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer, would be alive five years after diagnosis.

But we had absolutely no information about whether my husband was in that five percent group — research hasn’t yet determined the characteristics of those who survive. So while the chances were low that he'd be among the 5 percent, if he was then he would live and if he wasn't then he wouldn't. In other words, when you’re talking about a specific person, the odds are either 100 percent or zero percent. And we wouldn’t have any idea which group he was in until the time came.

So, we hoped that he was in the "good" group, but took all the steps needed to get our affairs in order. This wasn’t the power of positive thinking; we didn’t believe that thinking positive thoughts was going to affect his survival. Not dipping into positive thinking also meant that should my husband’s outcome not be favorable we weren’t risking feeling guilty from thinking we hadn’t done "positive" correctly or well enough. It was simply that in the face of no information, we were hoping hard for the outcome we wanted, while being practical in case that didn’t happen.

I was also especially careful to guard against creating an expectation that he would survive — to me there is a big difference between hoping and expecting. I think having an expectation of his survival would have allowed us to become complacent, and made his death even more devastating should that have occurred — almost like going through the shock of the diagnosis all over again. By keeping our approach as "hope" rather than "expectation" we could allow ourselves to be optimistic and cheerful, rejoicing in each day and our time together, without assuming there would be a long-term future.

As luck would have it, my husband was in the five percent. He just passed the five-year mark with his cancer still in remission and was deemed cured by his oncologist. So it’s back to life — a life we don’t take for granted.

Editor's note: Read Merle's follow up >>

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