Hope Wins A Round

April 30, 2012

I’ve been thinking a lot about hope this past week on a very personal level.  In my case, it’s more than just trying to be optimistic.  It’s more of an acknowledgement of what I’m up against and why hope is important.

My reason for wanting to maintain hope is the fact that I’m a cancer patient and more importantly, a cancer survivor.  The type of cancer in my case is a rare bone cancer called chondrosarcoma.

Of the 2400 or so cases of bone cancer diagnosed in the United States each year, only about 720 are chondrosarcoma. Compare that to over 800,000 new cases of breast cancer diagnosed each year and it’s easy to see why you’ve probably never heard of it.

My fight with bone cancer over the past fifteen years has largely been a matter of enduring a variety of surgical procedures, including a knee-joint replacement followed by amputation and several resections when the tumors kept coming back.  Last year, the tumors had returned again and my doctor said surgical removal of the tumors was no longer helping me.

He asked me to consider palliative care, sort of an outpatient hospice, while we waited for the tumors to metastasize throughout my body and eventually kill me.  He gave me somewhere between 5 and 15 years, presuming nothing changed.   Can you imagine telling someone that?

I’m 54, but at the time, I was 53.  My wife, Sarah, and I were coming up on our 21st anniversary.  Our son, Nick, was in college, and had transferred to a school close to home.  And our daughter Stephanie was an honors student in high school.  But somehow, last year, I was supposed to just lay down and die.

That was where hope came in.  Hope wouldn’t let me give up or give in. Hope demanded that I keep fighting; especially for Sarah and the kids. Hope kept telling me there was another answer out there.  Hope helped me find the strength to ask for help and to keep looking.  As long as I held on to hope, I knew that no matter what happened, the cancer wouldn’t win.

Last year’s search for an alternative led me to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.  I soon found myself on a clinical trial for a new drug designed for my specific type of cancer.  The first few months were touch and go; especially after we learned I had been on the placebo the whole time.

But they switched me to the real drug and within two months we had the answer we’d been hoping for:  the drug was working; my cancer tumors were stable and hadn’t moved or grown.  Hope had finally won a round. That feeling continued this past week when my blood-work showed things were stable.

Now it’s easy to take a cynical perspective and state that I had it easy. What about people that are terminal or people who have been through trial after trial only to have all of them fail?  What about them, Mr. Optimism?  It’s one thing to be hopeful when the drug is working and quite another when you’re suddenly out of options.

And actually, I’d agree with you.  It is easier to be hopeful when things are going well or when you know you’re having an easier time than someone else.  My whole belabored point is that hope is often very hard to find.  It can be even harder to hold on to.  And sometimes, finding it and holding on to it, or trying to, can seem a little pointless.

I’m not arguing in favor of pointless optimism, but I am saying that by holding on to hope, I’m pushing back against cancer.  It’s taken some of my mobility and most of my left leg.

But it doesn’t get to take my ability to laugh, love my family or have a good time.  It doesn’t get to take away my enjoyment of life or my gratitude for the friends I have.  It doesn’t get to suck my soul dry and turn my life into a bottomless pit of despair, anger and helplessness. Like I said before, it doesn’t get to win and it never will.

So here’s to hope; not just for the rounds it wins, but for staying with us even when it loses.  Because life is good.  Hope helps us find that, even when things seem their darkest.  Hope can keep you going.  Hope can find a way for you to laugh, love and enjoy each day.  Doing that pisses off both cancer and despair. I can’t help but think of that as a very good thing.

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