By Damaris Christensen
Journeying With Hope
Cancer survivors recall the resources, insights and strengths that kept them moving forward on unexpected—and sometimes winding—paths
By Damaris Christensen
Life doesn’t come with directions. Even so, most people use familiar landmarks, patterns and habits to help them navigate. A diagnosis of a life-threatening illness like cancer distorts these familiar signposts, say many cancer survivors. As a consequence, many encounter a new roadmap for their future—and often, a re-mapping, even a re-envisioning, of their present journey as well.
“The truth is it’s not ever going to be normal the way it was,” says cancer survivor John McKemie, 59, of Houston. That means “coming to grips with the way life’s going to be rather than what it was. You can still have a full life and accomplish a lot of things.”
Cancer survivors, he notes, have access to much more guidance now than when he was first diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia in 1987. (McKemie, who had relapses of leukemia in 2000 and 2005 and was diagnosed with skin cancer and prostate cancer in the early 2000s, is now in remission.) Just as getting driving directions has become simple with the advent of online mapping tools, new technology has made it easy to find medical information and connect with people who have similar diagnoses. And all of these resources can give lost or confused patients insight into what to expect next.
But no matter how much help is available, an initial diagnosis of cancer is disorienting—and can be especially overwhelming if the statistics look bad. Mary Sharkey, 57, of Houston, was diagnosed in 2001 with pancreatic cancer—a disease with an extremely poor survival rate. “People don’t think of what they’re saying,” she says. “When they said to me, ‘No one has survived this horrible disease,’ I thought, ‘Well, guess what? You’re now talking to the first one.’ Yes, statistics are important, but you are not a statistic, you are a person.”
“You can’t be unrealistic and live in a world that isn’t true,” adds Sharkey, who underwent aggressive treatment and is now in remission. “But at the same time, you can’t just have hope taken away from you.”
“Hope keeps me going,” says Suzanne Lindley, 41, of Canton, Texas, who was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer in 1998. “After one particular appointment where an oncologist who I really admired sat down, patted me on the knee, and explained that I should come to grips with the fact that I was terminal, I decided to change his perception,” she says. “I already knew the gravity of my situation, but I still wanted to hold on to hope. The next week I had a cap made and presented it to him as a gift. On the front it said, ‘I Am Terminal’ and on the back, ‘So Are You.’ Several years later, I am still living and it continues to hang on his office wall.”