Living with Cautious Optimism

When your loved one is diagnosed with cancer, and life seems to throw you one bad turn after the next, hope can seem elusive. For me, the randomness of my husband Brett’s medulloblastoma diagnosis, which typically affects children ages five and under, was devastating. We had no idea what to expect, how could we? There were no known protocols for treating adults with medullas at the time.

Life without hope though is no life at all. We moved forward with what little information we had at the time. Since a good percentage of children with medullas live, and because Brett’s response to the surgery and treatments were so positive, we decided to fulfill our dream of starting a family.

No one said to Brett, “you are cured,” but we wanted him to be cured so badly that we wished it until we believed it. “The only proof of cure is life,” said Brett’s Uncle Harvey, who of all bizarre ironies was a pediatric oncologist.

Harvey’s words resonated with me and made me think about all kinds of probabilities…like getting hit by a New York City taxi or bus. It could happen. Anything could happen. Would we let cancer and the fear of cancer rule our choices or would we face it head on and continue on with life as we had imagined? For our sanity, we had to balance real fears with tangible hope.

Brett and I were in our mid-thirties and yearned for children. We decided to begin the process of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Brett had already banked sperm before chemotherapy just for this purpose. Once I made the decision to go through IVF, I didn't (and couldn't) entertain the possibility of a recurrence. We made it our narrative that Brett was cured.

I got pregnant the first cycle but it didn't last. No one ever raised the possibility of a miscarriage, so I felt both blindsided and devastated when it happened. Disappointment came again when I botched the middle of the night injection and learned the second cycle had to be cancelled. Despair and black clouds. That’s all I saw and felt. As though Brett and I were being targeted.

And then, when I least expected it, a colleague introduced me to her friend Erik who was a minister and psychologist. Talking to Erik was like emptying a bucket of tears—pent up tears from the stress of the past few years—and the unshakeable fear that life was doomed.

“How about trying to be cautiously optimistic?” Erik advised. He wasn’t sugarcoating all that had happened. He was giving us a blueprint to go forward.

Cautious optimism taught me how to hope again and to navigate the bumps of life which are always more jarring after a cancer diagnosis.

Months later, I prepared for round three of IVF. I wound up getting pregnant with twins. It almost didn’t happen because the physician inadvertently punctured a few blood vessels while retrieving my eggs and I bled so much that they had to do an emergency laparoscopy to stop the bleeding. Through this harrowing incident and the tentative weeks of being newly pregnant, the fear, doubt, and palpable anxiety crept in. Some of this could have been hormones, but the bigger part of the anxiety was realizing all that was at stake as parents. I continued to cling to the idea of being cautiously optimistic. I repeated those words like a mantra. They kept me calm.

Note: This column originally appeared on the Cancer Support Community blog and is the third in a series on caregiving.

Nancy Sharp



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