'La La Land,' 'Patriots' Day,' and lessons learned on living with cancer

This image released by Lionsgate shows Ryan Gosling, right, and Emma Stone in a scene from, "La La Land." (Dale Robinette/Lionsgate via AP)

When my first husband, Ahmad, was ill with metastatic bladder cancer, stories and movies inspired me both to escape and cope. Seeing and hearing the stories of others (whether happy or sad) helped me process and find perspective on my own life. With the Golden Globes and Oscars’ season here, two movies in particular have reignited these thoughts.

It was as a freshman at Boston University in the spring of 1988 that I first heard of Patriots’ Day. Not being from Massachusetts, I was unfamiliar with this holiday (on the third Monday in April) to commemorate the opening battles of the American Revolution. It is a holiday in Massachusetts and the day on which the Boston Marathon is run. 

As the movie, Patriots Day, opened nationwide recently I am reminded of the tragic 2013 Patriots’ Day, when an explosion killed and maimed so many at the marathon. It was a demarcation line for those affected, dividing life into the “before” and “after.”

The bombing marked a similar line in our cancer experience. 

It was April 16, 2013, the day after the tragedy. I was engrossed in the news of the manhunt when Ahmad came home from jogging and pointed out that his leg was oddly swollen. No pain, he said. Just swelling. 

Cancer was not even remotely on our radar. But that was how it started. And so there it was: what would later become a demarcation line of a “before” and “after.” 

In the days after the bombing, we heard heroic tales of hope and gratefulness to be alive even if severely wounded. Most cancer patients and their families rejoice and bask in utter gratitude in the moments when life with cancer looks hopeful. They realize how amazing life was before cancer and how, maybe, they didn’t have the wisdom to be grateful for it at the time. 

The movie La La Land reminds me of how cancer opens some patients to living with more joy — and to wondering why it took cancer for them to see this joy. 

The music and dancing sizzle with joy in life deeply lived. Emma Stone plays an aspiring actress and her boyfriend, Ryan Gosling, plays an aspiring jazz pianist. Their spirit and love of the creative work they do fires their drive. Emma Stone, upon accepting the Golden Globe for her performance, said she thinks “hope and creativity” are two of the most important things in the world and that they are what the movie is about.

Cancer patients and their families can attest to the importance of hope. Hoping for health, wellness, and better days. Hoping for a long life. Hoping to return to the life they knew before cancer. Ahmad didn’t survive his cancer. But his spirit of hopefulness, and his ability to find joy in the smallest of moments when he was ill, remind me how to live now.

I believe creativity is also a critical part of life with cancer. It might be artistic creativity— writing, dancing, painting — that gets some people through. But living creatively is even bigger.  Patients and families learn how to navigate the trenches of cancer: the possible cures, the dashed hopes, the remissions, the good intentions of others, the “scanxieties,” the successes and failures. Creativity reigns supreme in surviving these.

Cancer has a way of focusing attention on the absolute essentials. Finding, on a daily basis, what it is that brings you joy in the moment. And doing those things now. The reality is, whether we are sick or well, none of us knows how much time we have. Embracing both hope and creativity, in whatever form that means for us, can keep us feeling fully alive in this moment.

Renata Khoshroo Louwers is a writer and a bladder cancer patient advocate with the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network and the Research Advocacy Network. She lives with her new husband, Tim Louwers, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and San Francisco. This guest column appears on Diagnosis: Cancer through our partnership with Inspire, an Arlington, Va., company with condition-specific online support communities for over 900,000 patients and caregivers.

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