Editor’s Note: Two weeks ago, we shared how NBCF recently partnered with Johns Hopkins to provide a retreat for metastatic breast cancer patients (and their female caregivers). NBCF staffer, Rebecca, has written a four-part blog series on what she learned from spending the weekend with these patients. Last week she shared about redefining what it means to be present. If you’re just tuning in, we encourage you to revisit these posts. This week, in part three, she shares about finding hope again after losing it.
If your basis for holding onto hope were to vanish, could you find hope again? The metastatic breast cancer patients I spent a weekend with taught me that it is possible to find hope again after losing it. Traditional definitions of hope link the concept to anticipation and expectation, and this is where it becomes a bit complicated for metastatic patients. Many early-stage cancer patients hold onto the hope that they will get through treatment, no matter how terrible, eventually put cancer behind them, and go on to enjoy many healthy cancer-free days thereafter. However, this perspective doesn’t fit into the reality of a metastatic patient. Metastatic patients won’t have the opportunity to anticipate ringing a bell in celebration of completing treatment. As we said in our first post, a metastatic diagnosis means that cancer will be a part of your life…for the rest of your life.
Maggie, one of the inspiring patients at the retreat, shared that when the doctor told her of her metastatic breast cancer, she “felt like hope got pulled from beneath my feet.” She’d recently completed treatment for her then-Stage 3 cancer and was excited for a fresh start, with plans to travel abroad and celebrate a milestone birthday. The news that her cancer had returned as metastatic meant a loss of freedom…and with that an overwhelming loss of hope. She made another statement that stuck with me: “You take hope for granted until you lose it.” As I consider my own hopes for my health, family and career, I realize that I’ve never faced a challenge as big as metastatic disease that threatened them. I have taken hope for granted…but thanks to Maggie and the other patients who opened their hearts to me that weekend, I am really trying to not take it for granted anymore. I wish I could say that Maggie confidently reclaimed her hope by the end of the retreat, but she did say she was searching for hope and trying to redefine it…and to me, the fact that she hasn’t given up her quest of finding a new reason to hope, is a form of hope in itself.
Because metastatic patients often feel isolated from other breast cancer survivors and at times even their loved ones, connecting with other women in their same situation is vital to recovering this lost hope, and perhaps this is how the retreat helps patients most. They leave knowing they are not alone. Debbie H. arrived at the retreat still in a state of shock, coupled with anger and frustration, that despite her vigilance in always getting annual mammograms, her breast cancer went undetected until it had metastasized to her collar bone…which she broke this past Christmas. It was truly beautiful to see the moral support she received from attendee Anne, whose path to metastatic diagnosis was eerily similar. Because Anne learned of her condition roughly three months earlier than Debbie, she was able to encourage her that she has found it possible to move beyond the shock and anger to find hope again…most days.
Since reclaiming hope may mean letting go of the idea that it is tied to being cancer-free, the retreat also included a chaplain-led discussion regarding attendees’ definitions of hope. Responses included “finding the positive in every negative”, “faking it till you make it” and “finding hope in others”. For many, their responses were tied to their respective faiths and beliefs about God and heaven. As these women managed to find hope through spiritual strength, I couldn’t help but find encouragement in my own faith and lasting source of hope. However, Debbie E., suffering from inflammatory breast cancer, admitted, “sometimes doctors break my hope.” Yet Susanna, whose cancer has spread to her brain and lungs, says she’s experienced surprising feelings of hopefulness even amidst bad news, discovering that sometimes “you can maintain hope despite circumstances.” Ultimately, I loved this advice from Teresa, Maggie’s best friend: “Hope is unique to the person; others might have different definitions. Be confident in yours.”
Do you feel hopeful? If your hope is fading, I encourage you to be candid with those closest to you about your need to reclaim it, but please take heart in the lesson I learned from these inspirational women: We can find hope again after we have lost it.
Thank you for continuing to be a part of this conversation on Restoring Hope. Next week we’ll discuss how information can provide hope.