On brain cancer, false hope and learning to roll with life’s punches
Around about a year and a half ago, my fiancé, seemingly happy and healthy, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Inoperable. Eighteen months at best.
And now, here I am sitting in a hospital ward by her side while she sleeps. Just days ago everything took a turn for the worst. Her latest scans revealed another tumour, and there isn’t much they can do to stop this one.
Why am I telling you this? Because in times like these, you gain some of the most valuable experiences life has to offer. It’s been hard — by far the hardest journey I’ve ever been forced to traverse. But it’s been rewarding.
I’ve learned a lot whilst meandering along this long and windy road. Lessons about coping with struggle, lessons about love, lessons about the molecular biology of cancer cells and lessons about the importance of family.
Above all, though, one lesson has stood out amongst the others. That is, that in moments of pain and suffering, the hardest part is always acceptance. Get past that, and things become a whole lot easier.
False Hope is a Weird Thing
When Charlotte was first diagnosed, all I wanted to do was save her life. I refused to take the doctor’s word as gospel and clung to the tiny possibility that she might make it through.
I remember those early days well. I’d spend whole nights glued to my computer screen reading science papers that I barely understood.
I’d drink coffee, wine and energy drinks well into the early hours of the morning whilst I tried to decipher the life-saving codes I believed to be locked inside of those mind-bending research journals.
I’d venture into the hospital every day carrying a holdall filled with homemade smoothies, matcha green tea, vitamin supplements and anything else I thought might help.
In short, I did everything I could to change her prognosis. To put things right. I just couldn’t accept the truth. It wasn’t good news. This wasn’t curable. I couldn’t save her, and nobody could.
Non-acceptance made my pain unbearable. Every hospital appointment or new symptom she had would scare me stiff. Any bullet that threatened to shatter that pane of false-hope-stained glass protecting me from suffering would have me cowering in fear.
Some people might read those words and think it was a good thing that I had hope. I do, too. I’m not sure I could have handled the news without it — false or not.
But things got a lot easier as soon as I began to accept the way things were. My false hope was delaying the healing process I was soon to undertake. Things only started to become bearable once I came to terms with my worst-case scenario.
A Turning Point
After some time, I stopped researching so much. I stopped spending so many hours with my head inside my books and started enjoying the time Charlotte and I had together.
I don’t know why it happened, but around four months into her diagnosis I just had a kind of reality check. Her scans were coming back stable. The tumour wasn’t magically disappearing.
For the first time, I was starting to accept with the fact that, actually, this thing wasn’t going away — no matter what I did or believed.
That turning point was a huge milestone for me. Why? Because before it, I couldn’t cope. I was distraught. After it, I was okay. I was at peace. I expected the worst, and everything else was a blessing.
She had more than twelve months of stability, during which time we made some wonderful memories together. All the while, I knew that our days together were numbered.
I knew things would change soon — but that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that, for that period of time, we were together. That we enjoyed the present moment and let the future run its natural course.
Thinking Like a Stoic
I guess, in a sense, I was handling things like the Stoics did. As Seneca put it,
‘Misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect nothing but good fortune.’
In the beginning, all I expected was good news. She’s been having, like, ten portions of fruit and vegetables a day, thirty minutes of exercise, three cups of green tea — and she didn’t even have a headache today! The cancer must have vanished!
I’d psyche myself up with expectations of miraculous news. Each time her latest MRI revealed that the tumour wasn’t budging, I was crushed. I was expecting nothing but good fortune, and as a result, misfortune was crippling me.
One of the key principles of Stoicism is acceptance. Instead of hoping for the best, we should anticipate the worst, imagine it vividly and prepare ourselves for it. Is that the same as pessimism? Nope. It’s realism.
The Stoics weren’t telling us all to expect bad news and focus on the worst in life. Instead, they were letting us know that, actually, bad things can happen. They will happen. If we expect them not to, we’ll be sorely disappointed — so it follows that we should come to terms with the tragedies that may or may not befall us.
The moment I accepted that a miraculous recovery wasn’t on the forecast, I removed anxiety from my situation. Sure, sadness and grief still loomed. But nothing could catch me off guard. Bad news? Knew it. Good news? Great.
See, when you expect only good news in a bad situation, you’re probably going to be disappointed. If you accept that you’ll have to face difficult times at some point in your future, you won’t be surprised.
By accepting that rain may indeed be on the horizon, we allow ourselves to enjoy the sunshine without worrying about what lies ahead. We already know what’s coming, so we can sit back, make the most of the good weather and let the forecast manifest as it wishes.
This year has been a whirlwind. There have been tremendous highs, crushing lows and moments during which I haven’t even known how to feel.
I’ve learned many lessons from the cancer diagnosis of my fiancé. I can think of hundreds, but above all, the most important thing I’ve learned is that acceptance is the first step we all must take if we’re to cope with pain.
Until we accept what’s happening to us, we’ll never be able to recover. Acceptance is the beginning of an essential process: the process of recovery.
My advice? Don’t live life expecting things to be bright and rosy all of the time. Bad things will happen, and that’s okay. As long as you’re prepared for them, you’ll be able to handle them.
Shock is always the worst part of pain. Acceptance takes the sting out of the tail of suffering.