Uncertainty and Commitments

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

Being diagnosed with cancer changes one’s sense of the future. You wonder if you’ll die from cancer and, if so, when. There’s rarely a definite answer to these questions, so uncertainty becomes an unwanted companion. For the most part, this uncertainty is an abstraction floating around in the back of your head, but it becomes concrete at unexpected times.

For me, it became real when I thought about investing the money in my retirement account. Before cancer, I assumed that I would eventually enjoy many years of healthy retirement. After cancer, I wasn’t so sure that I would even reach retirement age. Investing for the long-term suddenly seemed risky. When I bought a car a few months after my surgery, I wondered if the car or I would last longer. (I’m happy to report that we’re both functioning reasonably well thirteen years later. Our bodies exhibit some dents and rust, but the engines still have some pep). My cancer hasn’t returned and, although there’s a slight risk of a recurrence, I’m again working on the assumption that I’ll enjoy many years of retirement.

But other people with cancer aren’t so fortunate. A woman in treatment asked me a blunt question: “How can I make commitments when I’m dealing with a crappy diagnosis?” She went on, “It’s hard for me to commit to doing something next week because I don’t know how I’ll feel. And bigger commitments – like starting a new relationship or a new job – seem impossible.” She was asking the question rhetorically, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

I wish I had a simple answer.

I do know that living with uncertainty is easier if you’re surrounded by people who understand and accept that uncertainty. They are there for you no matter what. It’s so much more difficult without that support. As we enter the holiday season, we tend to think about life in the bigger picture. Where we are, where we are headed, and who we are with. Serious illness adds poignancy and even urgency to these thoughts.

At a recent cancer support group, Rev. Tim Dean, Chaplain at Cayuga Medical Center, said that serious illness often makes us more authentic. Perhaps that’s why making commitments is sometimes more difficult when cancer is present. The commitments need to be honest and authentic. There’s not much pretense when you’re bald from chemotherapy. But perhaps that is some of the good that can emerge from the bad of cancer. When someone is with you through cancer, or even after cancer, they are with you all the way.

From the Ithaca Journal.

Click here for all of Bob’s columns


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