One of the major challenges of dealing with cancer is facing the unceasing reconfiguration of reality it causes. The best example is the initial, “It’s probably nothing,” which becomes, “we need to run more tests,” turns into, “this may be cancer,” and then “It’s stage IV, and we should discuss treatment options.”

You might think that this initial reconfiguration comes as the biggest shock, the one that requires the most mental power to handle; after all, you have to face it while least prepared. The raw emotion of those early days can’t be denied, but as the treatment progresses, your reality of life keeps changing more and more. All of a sudden, there are things you can’t do, places you can’t go, people, you can’t see—or don’t want to see because they became too toxic—a fantastic job offer you can’t take… And after a while, you realize you are no longer in control of your life.

Last month, though when I wrote this, it was just yesterday to me, they sent Edyta back home from the hospital. The chemo she had received was effective but not as effective as the doctors hoped, and now she can’t receive the stem cell transplant that was to be the turning point of her treatment. Yet again, we find ourselves staring at more uncertainty, this time involving a bone marrow transplant from a donor… Well, probably. Only a few days into 2021—the year we were finally going to get back on our feet, leaving this unpleasant episode behind—we found out that the treatment will take much longer than expected. Overnight, we went from planning our grand return to normalcy—coinciding with the winding down of the pandemic—to realizing that cancer is going to be our normalcy for the foreseeable future.

This illustrates well what has happened more times than I can count since the start of Edyta’s treatment. A dance of hope, fear, and reality.

Hope and fear are a strange duet. You need both. To be foolishly hopeful will hurt you in the long run because the reality of anything, not only cancer, is always more demanding than what you’d like it to be. But to give in to your fears means that you keep living out all the dark scenarios in the privacy of your mind, suffering longer than you have to because you suffer for things that haven’t happened yet. Hope and fear tend to keep each other in check, like the weighted ends of a tightrope walker’s pole.

The reality has had to reconfigure for everyone around us too. Rarely as drastically as now, but even some of the smaller changes to the plan or outlook of Edyta’s treatment caused strain on our relationships. The kind of news we get, and can therefore share, fails to release all the built-up tension everyone is experiencing. True good news—as long as you don’t manufacture it to put people at ease—is hard to come by when cancer is involved.

I want to end on a hopeful note and tell you that, over time, subsequent reconfigurations have caused less distress and took less time to adjust to. As we face another chapter of the unknown, I find strange comfort in trusting in our own adaptability. This tells me that when necessary, our capacity to cope and adapt can grow stronger. 

It’s not a lesson I would have chosen to learn, but hardship can be a damn good teacher.

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