Saturday, January 14, 2012

(How Much Do you Have?)

     I’ve been thinking about this installment of the Survivor’s Handbook for quite some time. The sheer vastness of the concept of “hope” literally overwhelms me, in spite of being a naturally hopeful person.  

     We use the word “hope” in our everyday vernacular, “…hope and dreams,”  “…hopeful for; “   we “lend hope,” “give hope,” and both “gain” and “lose hope.”  Every great person, from Aristotle to the Dalai Lama, has at least one quote with the word “hope” in it.  In fact, thirty-five of our fifty States have at least one town with “hope” as part of the name. 

      I was watching the Denver Bronco/ Pittsburgh Steelers football game today, (yes I’m a huge Bronco’s fan, and was very hopeful for a win.) I heard one of the commentator's talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, playing with an injured ankle.  The commentator had asked Roethlisberger if the ankle injury was lessening his hope for a victory.   I don’t remember the exact wording of his response, but the gist was that “hope drives away the fear of defeat.”

     And he’s right! When you have hope, there is no room for fear of defeat—no room for fear period. But one of the best things I have learned about hope over these past fifteen years is that “hope” actually sustains life. 

     After my husband, Michael, was diagnosed with the deadly and extremely rare form of cancer, Adrenal Cortical Carcinoma, we looked up the disease on the internet.  What we read was exceedingly bleak and terrifying.  Survival of this cancer was non-existent according to the internet information. 
     Michael did not believe, from the get go, that his illness was going to take him down.  He had tremendous hope that he would “beat” this vicious disease. 

      The oncologist was plain spoken about Michael’s chances of survival.  He told us that he knew of one other patient who had lived five years after diagnosis—the magic bench mark of survival in the world of cancer. But this patient’s cancer had been diagnosed at an earlier stage than Michael’s had.  When we got the diagnosis, Michael was at stage IV…the last, the deadliest stage.

     After leaving the oncologist’s office with that news, my naturally optimistic and hopeful nature was overrun with despair. I felt as if I was wearing doom as a restrictive and smothering overcoat that I could not shed. Michael, on the other hand, was certain he was going to survive this cancer. He had enough hope for us both.

     Michael continued to be filled with hope. He went through toxic rounds of chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. His doctor told us that he was going to throw everything he had in his arsenal at Michael, in the hopes that something would help. The bottom line was that the cancer was rare, and there was no known cure. They didn’t even know how to treat it. But Michael, ever the hopeful, surged on through the devastation of modern medicine, certain that he would be cured.

     “Your health belies what I’m seeing in the CT scans Michael,” the oncologist reported one sunny spring day.  “I don’t know how you’re doing it, but whatever you’re doing keep it up.” What Michael was doing was remaining committed to the belief that he would beat the cancer. He was undeniably filled with hope.

     As the year progressed, I could see that Michael was beginning to struggle. Once strong and fit, he began to lose strength in his legs. His complexion was no longer the rich olive tone of his healthier years, and his once beautiful thick black shiny mane was replaced with white and baby fine wisps of hair—the hard-hearted effects of chemo therapy.  Nonetheless, He remained as committed as ever to the fact that he was going to survive. He did not give up his hope… although it had changed. Now, uncertain that he would beat this cancer on his own, Michael was hopeful that the medical community would come through for him—that a treatment or cure would be found before he died.

     The last doctor’s appointment we went to was no longer filled with optimistic talk, or shaking of heads in disbelief. It had become obvious, that Michael’s health no longer belied what the oncologist was seeing on film.  “You don’t have long Michael,” the doctor said. “You need to go home and tell your children.” Michael lost all hope that day. He died less than a week later.

     I believe that Michael’s hope gave him an extra year with us. He wasn’t ready to give up, to lose his hope. And just like Ben Roethlisberger, Michael’s hope drove away the fear of defeat. We were all—my children, myself, and everyone else who loved Michael, benefactors of Michael’s hope. His sheer refusal to give up on himself gave us all an extra year with him.

     Hope is an essential tool in the Survivor’s tool kit. It drives the bus of determination, and chases away anxiety and defeat. It strips off the overwhelmingly restrictive overcoat of doom, and replaces it with light and freedom. It can be life sustaining and it can even give us the greatest gift we could ever imagine… time with those we love the most.