Spiritual Growth

How to Find Hope in the Face of Cancer

A day without sunshine is like, you know, night. ~Steve Martin

I wish I had a dollar for every person who told me to “think positive” or “stay positive” during my cancer ordeal. And if I had another dollar for every time someone voiced that sentiment and I wanted to smack them but refrained, I could have retired a lot sooner.

Those perennial positive-thinking pushes are definitely one more opportunity for us to hear people’s hearts and not just their words. I truly think those phrases do more to boost the spirits of the people uttering them than the disposition of anyone hearing them.

When I first started treatment, I really did try to keep positive. I was positive that I was not going to get sick from the chemo, especially because the nurses said I wouldn’t. But my stomach didn’t get the memo. Then I was positive that feeling well was a question of mind over matter, but my body said that I was out of my mind and it mattered that I was allergic to the 5-FU. And I positively tried to believe the anti-nausea medicine wouldn’t make me sleepy so I could take it and still function to care for my children, but my fatigued body couldn’t get up off the couch.

I experienced continuous nausea (handled by pretending I was pregnant!) and plenty of puking. My hands and the soles of my feet turned flame red and burned so much on some days that I couldn’t walk flat or bend my fingers. My eyes watered and my nose dripped constantly in an allergic reaction to the main chemo drug. I was experiencing days without sunshine, and I couldn’t just pretend they weren’t dark. Thinking positive didn’t diminish my side effects. It was like, you know, night.

The admonition to “think positive” or “stay positive” seems to come with an underlying assumption that if you succeed in doing this, everything will turn out the way you want. Treatment will go easily, surgery won’t be difficult, the scans will reveal good news, and the cancer will stay away. It’s as if the words are a good luck charm to ward off future evil.

Well, I’m sorry to burst that bubble, but I know plenty of positive people who struggled through treatment or who got bad news, and even some who stayed positive they were going to be cured right up until they breathed their last.

★  ★  ★

Wendy Harpham, a medical doctor living in Dallas, has learned that this brand of positive thinking is overrated.

Her cancer journey began in a way eerily similar to mine. She was diagnosed in 1990 at the age of thirty-six with three young children at home. But after that, our paths diverged as her non-Hodgkin lymphoma has continued to rear its ugly head.

Wendy has had nine separate courses of treatment for recurrences, but she has been in remission for the past eight years. A long time ago, she says, she decided to “defy the vocal ‘think-positive’ brigade.”

“Think positive—by which I mean expect a good outcome—was never an option for me,” she explains. “As a physician, I saw my illness through the eyes of a scientist who knew the statistics for my disease. And I also had seen too many patients who had done everything right and had ‘positive attitudes,’ yet died. I couldn’t deny that for me another recurrence wasn’t just a possibility; it was a likely scenario,” she explains. “So I stopped wasting energy trying to convince myself that this time I was surely cured.

Paradoxically, accepting that I was likely to need treatment again freed me to nourish genuine hope of the best possibility—however unlikely—that my cancer would stay in remission.”

Nourish genuine hope. I love that idea.

Instead of pretending it’s not dark or somehow willing ourselves to believe only for the best, why not nourish genuine hope in the not-so-positive times?

We also celebrate in seasons of suffering because we know that when we suffer we develop endurance, which shapes our characters. When our characters are refined, we learn what it means to hope and anticipate God’s goodness. And hope will never fail to satisfy our deepest need because the Holy Spirit that was given to us has flooded our hearts with God’s love. Romans 5:3-5, The Voice

Don’t despair if you are experiencing a day without sunshine. Maybe it’s the only one you’re going to face, or perhaps it’s one of a string of dark days. Either way, God’s hope will never fail to satisfy your deepest need. Anticipate His goodness. Expect Him to flood your heart with His love. He is greater than any temporary shadow that cancer is casting over you in this season of suffering.

Even the darkness is not dark to You, And the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to You. Psalm 139:12, nasb

Thinking positively doesn’t guarantee our desired outcome, but thinking about positive truths makes a world of difference in our cancer journey.

Wendy says she has put this kind of positive thinking into practice for more than twenty-five years by focusing on such things as what she still has and not on what she’s lost, by reading about exceptional survivors, and by finding things to celebrate each day.

You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you! Isaiah 26:3

Scripture doesn’t encourage the power of positive thinking, but it does urge Christ-followers to think about positive truth. And that kind of thinking does have a guaranteed outcome—our peace.

Dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. . . . Then the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:8-9

I will fix my mind on Your instructions and my eyes on Your path. Psalm 119:15, The Voice

I will bless the Eternal, whose wise teaching orchestrates my days and centers my mind at night. Psalm 16:7, The Voice

We achieve peace when we choose to dwell on positive truths and not just think positively.


From Peace in the Face of Cancer by Lynn Eib

Millions of us are living in the shadow of cancer. Some are hoping to beat the odds and become cancer-free, while others know they are facing cancer for the long haul. And even more of us are standing by someone with a cancer diagnosis and feeling helpless as we grapple with the uncertainty it brings.

Whether the cancer is considered “in remission,” “cured,” or “chronic,” it is possible to find peace as we face it.

In this beautiful, giftable book, cancer patient advocate Lynn Eib shares how to live well from the moment of diagnosis through the rest of life. She weaves the story of her own experience as a long-time cancer survivor and those of others around the world into these hope-filled pages. You’ll discover how to bring God’s peace into your own home and heart—regardless of your or your loved one’s medical prognosis.

Peace in the Face of Cancer and other resources of hope for those touched by cancer are on sale in the month of October at Tyndale.com. Learn more HERE>>

Joy serves as the Digital Marketing Specialist at Tyndale House Publishers. As a digi-hostess, she enjoys interpersonal communication, email marketing, and mapping customer journeys. In her spare time, Joy runs, reads, and travels.

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