Sitting with Uncertainty

August 15, 2018

Reprinted with permission of the author, Terri Mason. The original post is on the Healing Circles website, drawing from a January 2012 conversation. Terri and fellow Commonweal Cancer Help Program alumni share their thoughts on sitting with uncertainty.

Sitting with Uncertainty

Dear Wise Ones,

I’m asking for your advice and stories because I know you have experience with this. At the end of December, I had an MRI that shows “significant results.” The medical consensus is that whatever it is that showed up on the scan has a high probability of being benign, but “we just don’t know.” So, in the next few weeks, I will have more tests, more waiting for results. I was pretty shaken up for the first few days, and many new symptoms suddenly appeared, but after the first night of broken sleep and worry, and blurting out my worst fears to a trusted friend, I have been eating and sleeping pretty well. I also feel lucky to have a few close people who really get it that I can confide in.

I’ve asked my intuition what it feels, and the response is ”whatever the results, you will be fine.” Thanks a lot, intuition, you’re supposed to say “benign.” Trying to wrap my head around the notion that, even if my worst fears are confirmed, I will be “fine” in a broader sense of things is a new notion and still scares me. I have always been of the “rage, rage against the dying of the light” school of thought. I’ve paid lip service to acceptance but never practiced it. My superstition has always been that, if I accept my mortality, it means I’m ready to die, and I will die soon. I hope that will change with this scare, and I will finally be able to write a will and an advanced directive. Yes, I know I should have done this long ago. I’m like a doctor who smokes.

Here are my specific questions for you.

  • What helps you when you are waiting for test results?
  • When you receive unfavorable medical news how do you respond?
  • What helps?

– Terri Mason


I think the waiting is the hardest part of having cancer. One of them anyway. Once you know what you are working with, it’s easier—you are in the new reality and your whole being adjusts.

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– Laura Davis

All of us with cancer live with the reality that it may recur. And, it may kill us. Something will. Life is terminal. Yet, we need to cope with insecurities and the possible progression of our cancer every day that remains for us.

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– Karen Jacobs

I don’t know the answer. Waiting is hard. I try to stay grounded and loving in the present and stay hopeful. Easier said than done. Your question made me think of Bernie Siegel’s book, How to Live Between Office Visits. Perhaps it could offer some grounding, ideas, comfort? Stay in “love.” Ah, but the trick is to do that while still acknowledging other emotions. Maybe there is enough love to encompass all of the feelings? More questions than answers, but definitely something worth exploring.

– Paula E

Your email raises one of the toughest issues for me in my cancer journey: how to face uncertainty with grace.

Before I tackle that one, no easy answers there, let me observe that your intuition is offering very wise counsel.

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– Rob Feraru

Thank you for convening our circle with your question and thanks to all for this conversation. I am feeling right now that my own capacity to sit with uncertainty descended upon me like a kind of grace from the moment I heard that I had cancer.

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– Merijane Block, alumna of December 1999 and June 2009 Cancer Help Program

My challenge in all of this is to remember I’m the same person I was before the CAT scan. This result doesn’t change my actual life; it just changes what I think about my life. I had an old Indian teacher who used to say, “Your mind is a bad neighborhood. Don’t go there. You’ll get mugged.”

This is the reality of this disease. It is chronic. It will most likely come, and hopefully go, for the rest of my life, regardless of how long that ends up being. I can’t help but want to be special, be a miracle, be an overachiever, be an outlier, and I don’t want to feel like a failure or that I am to blame if things don’t go as I prefer.

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Bonnie Gintis

First off, I want to say when I ask my intuition for answers, I get the same “you will be fine” answer. I feel like saying “Intuition, what is up with that? Around here, fine means anything from just losing a job, house, and spouse to just getting a job, house and spouse and everything in between!” So my response is the same as Terri’s “Thanks a lot, intuition.”

I used to live in a reality where I just knew I was going to outlive my 401K as the women in my family are long-lived. My foundation was shaken when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 51. Couple that with the sum total of my patience fitting on to a pinhead, and my inclination now when faced with uncertainty or waiting for news (test results, company merger/layoff notices, etc.) is to dive right into the well of despair and hang out there for long periods of time.

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– Pam

My very favorite book addressing this topic from a Budddhist perspective is Comfortable With Uncertainty by Pema Chodron. I read it often.

– Liane Makiva

I recently had a scan and then, a wait-and-see period. These tests and uncertainties, whether they barge or creep in, arrive like an uninvited stranger at my door, commanding attention and becoming my sole distraction.

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– Susan

A few thoughts about “uncertainty.” We feel most uncertain in the absence of certainty. Being human, we crave to know who we are, where we are, or what will happen next. To come to terms with uncertainty and to hold it with less anxiety, we accept that we can never know with certainty what will happen the next moment, the next year, or next lifetime. There is little that is certain.

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– Waz Thomas

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