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Cancer Survivors, Hope Is More Than Just Empty Sentimental Bullshit


Let’s face it, the word “hope” has become smarmy and trite. It’s overused, or at least talking about it is. And yet, here I am… talking about it. I guess because, despite being reduced to decorative wooden wall hangings at Hobby Lobby, hope has real life and actual purpose.

It’s worth pushing past the cheesy, sentimental movies that make you cry even when they’re terrible and you don’t want to, and in which having hope is rewarded with happily ever after. And that’s not always true.

I think we often have an end result in mind when we use the word “hope.” I hope I pass this test, I hope that I am/am not pregnant, I hope my crush likes me back, I hope I feel better tomorrow, I hope this tumor/cancer/disease goes away. We hope for things to go or be a certain way and there’s an outcome, but not always the one we hoped for.

That’s the problem with hope. The results are a gamble. It’s a risk we take with our spirit and emotions. Too many disappointments can easily lead to bitterness and despair. It’s not easy to hope in the midst of suffering. It’s a choice you have to make despite your circumstances.

Before I go any further, I want to clarify my terms so we’re on the same page. Having hope is not about being cheery or positive all of the time, just as despair isn’t defined by sadness, anxiety or fear. You can have hope and still worry about a lot of things. You can have hope that your crush will like you while still being anxious about it. Hope doesn’t mean “not worrying.” I think we’d all despair if we thought we had to be happy all of the time. Hope is not happiness and despair is not sadness.

This is the classic difference between feelings and state of mind.

Hope is a state of mind. It is something you decide regardless of how you feel. Despair is the same. You cannot let your circumstances or your feelings determine whether you hope or despair.

It’s not always easy talking about the intangible like emotions and states of mind, concepts like hope and despair. It’s a bit like talking about religion or philosophy. It’s hard to provide concrete data to support what you’re saying. All I really have is my own experience.

About two years ago, my oncologist from MD Anderson was in Chicago for a conference and we met for coffee. I was about two years into survivorship of stage IV metastatic melanoma. I’ll never forget what she said to me: “I think a big reason why you’ve come through so well is because you didn’t succumb to a ‘why me’ attitude.” She said she’d noticed this difference with her patients’ success levels.

In other words, I didn’t despair, and that helped me survive. It’s not as if I didn’t think those words — “Why me?” — or grieve when I realized just how serious things were. I just didn’t remain there, focused on my grief, as if the disease had already taken my life.

There is a common proverb that states, “Where there is breath (or life), there is hope.” The sense that you never know what the next day will bring, or the next, or the next. It’s the crux of the “It gets better” campaign: the idea that though things are terrible now, and you are in the midst of suffering, there’s hope for a better future and you shouldn’t give up. That’s hope — not giving up.

Despair is the enemy of hope. It woos you to give up. It’s the lie whispered in your ear telling you it doesn’t get better, asking you, “Why fight? It’s stage IV cancer and your latest scan shows fifty metastases in your brain.”

That was me. I went to the emergency room for food poisoning and the on-call doctor ordered a brain MRI because of my cancer history. When the results came back, I could see the bad news written on her face. She told me not to read the results. Fifty tumors in my brain.

Afterwards, one of my oncologists told me there was nothing he could do. He gave up on me. So I fired him. He was basically personified despair, which is not a good quality in a doctor. His resignation in my hopelessness infuriated me and I chose to hope, just to spite him.

I refused to give up on myself. I didn’t stick my head in the sand and pretend things were less serious than they were. But I was still alive, and that meant there was still a chance.

I’ve had stable scans with no sign of disease for almost three years now. New immunotherapy drugs were approved by the FDA and I started them as soon as they hit the market. The cancer responded and my tumors began to disappear. It was through this experience that I was reminded of the importance of hope and keeping in mind that you really don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

There are no promises in life that things will always be easy or even end well. None of us gets through it unscathed. Even when we make it through the big stuff, there are still challenges that knock us down.

I’m basically cancer-free now, but I wear hearing aids, my hair won’t all grow back, I have fatigue, aches and pains, and I can’t have children. I have scan anxiety and worry that every weird feeling in my body means the cancer is back. Hope doesn’t take away my problems, but choosing to hope does give me the strength to not give up. And that’s the somewhat tangible benefit to this intangible thing called hope.

I apologize for so many “motivational speaker,” “trite-sounding bullshit” moments in this post. It’s hard to avoid when discussing things like hope and despair.

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Getty Images photo via gmast3r