Chapter 57 Summary

A Way to Understand Optimism

Right after Pausch was diagnosed with cancer, one of his doctors gave him an excellent piece of advice. He told Pausch it is important for him to behave as if he were going to be around for a while, something the dying man had already determined to do. Pausch joked that he just bought a new convertible and got a vasectomy and wonders what more he needs to do to prove he plans to live a rich and fulfilling life—short or not.

There is no chance that Pausch is in any kind of denial about his condition; on the contrary, he is well aware of the inevitable end which will come. While he is living as if he is dying, he is also living very much like he is still living. Some oncologists make appointments for their patients as far as six months in advance; this sends an optimistic message that the doctors and staff are confident they will be around at least that long. Many terminally ill patients see that appointment card and determine they will make it that far and, once they do, they will get good news about their prognoses.

One of Pausch’s doctors in Pittsburgh, Herbert Zeh, a surgeon, says he always worries about terminally ill patients who are too optimistic or too ill-informed. Conversely, he is unhappy to see patients who are told by their friends and acquaintances that if they are not optimistic their treatments will not work. It is painful for him to see patients who blame themselves for their ineffective treatments because they were not positive enough to somehow make their treatments work.

Pausch believes optimism is a mental state which can enable people to do tangible things to improve their physical conditions. An optimistic person is better equipped to deal with disappointments, to endure the brutalities of chemotherapy, and to keep searching for any late-breaking advances in the field of medicine.

Dr. Zeh believes Pausch has achieved the perfect balance between optimism and realism. He watches carefully and sees that Pausch tries to embrace his cancer as just another one of his life experiences. And those observations are correct. Pausch loves the fact that his vasectomy does double duty both as a birth control method and as a gesture of optimism about his future. While he loves driving around in his new convertible, he loves thinking that he may be the one guy in a million who might actually beat his late-stage cancer. But even if he does not, Pausch has a better mindset with which to face each day.