The Thing with Feathers: Holding On to Hope for a Cancer Cure

The Thing with Feathers: Holding On to Hope for a Cancer Cure

My daughter’s high school English class is reading a poem by Emily Dickinson. It begins with: “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers.”

I read the poem in high school, too. I’ll be honest, even with all of the English courses I took, I never fully understood what that line meant.

Since being diagnosed with follicular lymphoma, I think about hope a lot. Sometimes, I interpret that line as meaning that hope has feathers because it flies away easily, like a scared bird. As cancer patients, we all have moments when it’s hard to hold on to hope.

At other times, I believe that hope has feathers because it’s like a soft down pillow that gives me comfort.

It’s a balancing act. Hope is about staying positive about circumstances that might not happen. As cancer patients, we often discover good news about cancer that makes us want to grab that soft pillow of hope.

Last month, I saw a story shared on cancer message boards, Facebook groups, and in emails. The headlines were along the lines of, “Company Says It Will Cure Cancer Within a Year.”

Now, like any cancer patient, that line caught my attention.

But I’ve been a cancer patient for more than 11 years, so a part of me was also a little skeptical.

The original article starts with a quote from the head of a biotechnology company claiming that the new treatment, a cure for all cancers, could be offered within a year. The treatment would begin working right away, have minimal side effects, and be less expensive than current treatments.

Two parts of me were fighting inside: One wanted to believe in the fluffy hope pillow, while the other was sure this little hope bird was going to fly away.

I read further. The science behind the treatment sounded fantastic. But then I saw the kicker: This “miracle cure” hasn’t been tried on humans yet. It’s been tested on mice only. When the company says they plan to make it available within a year, they mean they intend to start clinical trials in that time. So, it won’t be available for anyone who wants or needs it within a year. And there is no guarantee that trials of the treatment, called MuTaTo (multi-target toxin), will be successful.

Experts expressed caution, too. In a post on the American Cancer Society’s website, Len Lichtenfeld, an oncologist and the society’s deputy chief medical officer, wrote: “… [W]e all share the aspirational hope that they are correct. Unfortunately, we must be aware that this is far from proven as an effective treatment for people with cancer, let alone a cure.”

New treatments take time to develop. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently announced it will grant priority review to a treatment for follicular lymphoma. I first wrote about that treatment on my blog in 2010. It took nine years to get to the point where its makers can apply for approval.

It’s hard to be that patient when you have cancer.

So, when I see news like this, I take that fluffy hope pillow and I rest my head. I try not to get too excited because if I’m not careful, the feathers might fly out as I slam my head down onto hard reality.

Keep holding on to hope.

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Note: Lymphoma News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Lymphoma News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to lymphoma.

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Bob McEachern is a Follicular Lymphoma patient and advocate. He was diagnosed with Follicular Lymphoma, a slow-growing but incurable blood cancer, in 2008. Since then, he has used his blog, Lympho Bob, to bring information and hope to other FL patients. A writing teacher and married father of three, he enjoys gardening, music, and travel.

2 comments

  1. Ann Wheelock says:

    Hi Bob- well written and great advice. I have been living with “incurable” MALT lymphoma now for four years. At first very scary because its in my lungs, and I am a very active 54 year-old who loves to hike and cross country ski. I have been stable at a very low disease level since undergoing Bendamustine and Rituxan a few years ago. This experience has taught me to live much more in the now. I used to be more of a planner, and now I’m more of a doer. I would still love a cure (who wouldn’t (:). But none of us get out of life alive. Your article on survival statistics is excellent. I’d like to keep hiking and skiing as long as possible. It is nice to hear from other indolent lymphoma survivors. Its hard to explain to others. Best wishes to you!!

    • Hi Ann. I’m glad you like both pieces. Yes, it is hard to explain to others. Most people think of cancer as either raging out of control or completely gone, and not something else. Glad to hear that the Bendamustine helped, and that you’re still able to (and motivated to) do a lot of what you want. Take care. ~Bob

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