"[J]ust as despair can come to one another only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings.
When her doctor told her that there was “nothing anyone could do,” and that she should “go home and get her affairs in order,” her life had changed. At 43 with a young family and a lifetime ahead of her, she now faced her own death for the first time. Suddenly, a Phantom accompanied her constantly, and every remark and experience filtered through this new presence. When I met her two weeks later, she was already accepting her sentence as inevitable. She was expecting more devastating news.
Without recognizing the presence of the Phantom, I entered the exam room. I knew only her original diagnosis and some of the details of her recently completed treatment. After a difficult course of therapy for an early stage oropharyngeal cancer, a follow-up CT scan had shown some residual lymph nodes. I reviewed the next steps … a biopsy, a neck dissection, and a review of the pathology. “We have a good chance of curing your cancer with this,” I told her. She had never allowed herself to consider the possibility of cancer cure before.
Unexpected cancer control happens.
For years, I followed a young man whose enormous pharyngeal cancer had completely evaporated with radiation therapy. Later, I cared for a woman whose recurrent oral cavity cancer disappeared after three cycles of a second-line chemotherapy. You just never know.
As the appointment ended, she wept and rushed out to call her daughter. Until then, there had been a Phantom in the room with us, but we had only become aware of its presence once it had fled. Hope had been restored.
A previous version of this essay appeared in the MCW Cancer Center News.
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You just never know indeed. That's why I try to leave my patients with hope every time I see them.
- David Loeb