Across the street from the hospital where I received my treatment were three houses where out-of-town patients like me could stay while undergoing treatment that did not require us to stay in the hospital. Families of patients could also stay there. I stayed in one of these houses for six weeks during my radiation treatment.

The hospital staff named these three houses “Faith,” “Hope,” and “Charity.” I lived in the middle house, “Hope.” This was very appropriate, because I had been meditating a lot on hope.

A house called Hope

A House Called Hope

I became aware of the power of hope in the days after my breast biopsy, when I knew that I had breast cancer but did not know how serious it was. I had not yet had a lymph-node biopsy, and my surgeon was strongly recommending mastectomy and lymph-node excision. I wondered if the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes or perhaps even to my bones or lungs. A chest X-ray had not shown any obvious metastases, and I had no symptoms at all—but then, I had had no symptoms from the breast lump either.

My emotions were on the infamous “roller coaster” that everyone talks about, and now I understood it firsthand. At times, I was in the depths of despair, feeling that I had only a few months or years to live. I was having trouble sleeping. I would wake up at 3 a.m. and wake Peter up, asking him to hug me and talk to me. I couldn’t eat properly and walked about in a daze. At other times, I felt that I was going to fight this thing with my last breath and be victorious over it. And sometimes I thought that, given the facts, it could well be stage I (i.e., no sign of the cancer having spread to the lymph nodes) and the outcome would probably be good.

I received my first real infusion of hope from a seemingly unexpected source. It was during the first appointment I had with the oncologist I saw in Montana. I have already related how he looked at me at the very end of the interview and said, “You know you are not going to die. Your outlook is probably very good.” This had a very big impact on me. Suddenly I felt a whole lot better, and my spirits soared. I practically danced out of the hospital and felt elated. “Why, he thinks I am going to live!”

Six months later, here I was, living in a house called Hope. It seemed that the angels were really trying to get me to think about hope and what it means. I came to realize that hope is an essential ingredient in the healing process. Hope even affects the functioning of the immune system.

I believe that there is no such thing as false hope. Although my cancer was not as serious as many and my outcome was likely to be good, I found that holding on to hope was still a challenge. There is such a weight that comes from the diagnosis of cancer—just the though of everything I had read and all the people I knew who had died from it. Even being in a hospital with other cancer patients can be like a two-edged sword. The best treatment is available there, but seeing other patients with cancer, especially those with more advanced cases, is a reminder of how badly things could go. All of this hangs like a dark cloud.

Hope is like the golden rays of the sun piercing the clouds. It is a grace, but it is also something that we can win and attain. Hope comes with prayer and mental effort and also with grace.

At the same time, do not be too optimistic or like an ostrich burying your head in the sand, not paying attention to the seriousness of your condition. For here in your body is something that will eventually take your life if it is allowed to continue. You need to be very realistic in order to make good choices. And as you seek to balance hope and realism, it will sometimes feel as though you are walking a tightrope.

I believe that for hope to be effective, it must be anchored in reality. Just “hoping” that the cancer will go away by itself is not hope but a retreat into fantasy. Hope is the rope you pull on to get you through the hard times—the painful physical, mental, and emotional changes you have to go through to deal with cancer. Change is always painful, since you have to let go of something familiar, even loved, before you can accept something new.

I believe that there is always room for hope, no matter what the diagnosis or the statistics. Hope is not about living or dying but how we face the day. And even if the statistics are 99 percent against us, there is nothing that says that we cannot be the one in a hundred who makes it.     

I also believe that hope is always an option because healing is always an option. No matter what the physical outcome, healing is always possible for the heart and the soul. And it is the heart and the soul that we take with us, even after the physical body is gone.


Excerpted from A Journey through Cancer, by Neroli Duffy