One of my pet peeves of cancer, and a pet peeve of many cancer patients I know, is suddenly being told we are“brave”, “courageous’, a “fighter” and even a “role model”. Most other cancer patients I speak with despise these sentiments.
It’s not like I Chose Cancer. I didn’t sidled up to the take out window and say “I’ll have some ovarian cancer to go please”, while others were asking for, and receiving, good health. Given the choice, I would have gladly handed my cancer over to someone else. Doesn’t that sound terrible? I didn’t choose to fight, or to be brave, or courageous – I did what I was told to do. In fact, I only did the treatment I did (the hardest of the front line treatments for ovarian cancer) because I had family pushing me to do it. I was fairly convinced that I would only make it through 1 or 2 treatments before I would quit and finish out with the easier chemo. I was the opposite of brave, or courageous. Before chemo started, I actually spent a night awake, with pain from surgery, and by the morning I was a raving lunatic, pacing my kitchen, ranting about the multiple reasons I would not do chemo, bemoaning the fact that I was going to die anyway, so what was the point, and shouting about how this was all bullshit. My poor sister sat in total silence, listening to me rant, with no idea of what to say or do. Does that sound courageous?
So what is brave? The on-line definition is “possessing or exhibiting courage”, so I needed to know the definition of courage. The definition of courage is “a quality of mind/spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger or pain Without fear. “ With these definitions in mind, I am more certain than ever that I am not brave, or courageous. Something bad happened and I survived it. Period. That’s what cancer is. It’s something bad that happens to some people, and we do what we have to do to survive. And trust me – we don’t do it without Fear. In fact, I think most cancer patients have spent a fair amount of time on Valium or Ativan, because the Fear runs rampant in our minds.
I consider the people who took care of me, the people who boosted my spirits, the people who cooked & cleaned and drove my kids to their activities the brave, courageous ones. I consider the people who listened to me whining and complaining but insisted I stick it out, the ones “able to face difficulty without fear”. I consider the ones who looked me in the eye when I was diagnosed and said “shit”, then just hugged me the courageous ones. Me? I was a heaping mound of fear, from the minute I got the 1st phone till……well, when the fear is gone I’ll let you know. It is with me every single day.
Truth be told I can think of only 4 times in my life that I’ve been brave. They might seem trite to some readers, but for me they were courageous moments.
The first was when I was teenager, and, being an ongoing total disappointment to my parents and siblings, I decided to leave home. Trust me – I didn’t want to, but I did, and I stayed away until I had my act together. This was a horrible time for my family, not knowing if I was dead or alive, and I knew every day I was away that it had to be terrible for them. Every day I wanted to call them, especially on Thanksgiving and Christmas, when I had nothing to eat, no where to live and definitely no gifts to open or family to sing with. I also knew though, that I could not go home and be part of the family until I had pulled myself together. I was away for 4 months, maybe 5, and I learned some hard lessons, but I also learned that I was strong, capable, and good enough to claim a space in the world and in my family. For me, this is the bravest thing I’ve ever done. (stupid also)
The second time was when I had to lead a business meeting in the pledge of allegiance, the words of which kept escaping my mind. Goofy, right? Leading up to the event I was engulfed in fear. For weeks I was terrified, trying to come up with ways to get out of it. Every time I practiced saying the pledge I lost the words, my tongue froze and I started to shake! When the time came though, I approached the podium, feeling brave and courageous and, even though I mumbled in a few places, I pulled it off. I faced that podium with none of the fear I had been living in the weeks leading up to it.
The 3rd time was 4 months after I finished chemo. My husband told me he was going to a bar with his high school buddy, which I was 99% sure was Not True. For the 1st time in 20 years I took him up on his repeated offer to “follow him around” or “check up on him”. I said “Great. I’m going to grab a quick shower and I’ll meet you. Text me the name of the place and the address and I’ll meet you there”. I said all of this looking him right in the eye. I was essentially saying “it’s time to decide – our marriage or your girlfriends”. I knew there was a good chance he would not choose the marriage, and he didn’t. Less than 1 week later, after having to cancel his date that night, he asked for a divorce. I was devastated, but not surprised. I had kept our marriage alive for 20 years by ignoring his infidelities and lies, by not being courageous enough to “check up on him” or “follow him around” as he so often offered me, knowing I did not have the courage to do so. At that moment, I knew that in changing the rules, I would pay a price, but I did it without a smidgen of Fear.
The last time I was brave was when I walked into our neighborhood yoga studio. Why was this brave? We live in a close knit community, in which everyone either knows you, or knows someone who knows you. I was the talk of the town. Everyone knew that my husband had left me, that I had cancer, and that he was with a woman in our very own community. In fact, one of the owners of the studio is a neighbor to my ex’s current girlfriend. And trust me – he made no secret of his dalliance. He went everywhere with her, starting less than 2 months after he moved out (he was actually going out with her, in our town, prior to him even moving out, but I don’t know how many people knew that). It took tremendous courage to walk into that studio, not knowing who I would run into, or who would approach me, or who would give me the head tilt of shame – you know the one, where the speaker tilts their head to the left, furrows their brow in a show of concern, and and says “how are you”, the pity oozing from every pour. When I walked into that studio though, I did it with No Fear. When I found out the girlfriend had been there one night I considered finding a new studio, but I fought that fear, and I go there, almost every day, with my head held high, ready to ignore the curious onlookers while I tend to my body and soul.
I know some people who I consider remarkably brave, and, as Brene Brown has found in her research, they are brave when they put themselves out in the world a their true, vulnerable selves. One of my favorites is the young woman who applied for, and was accepted, into the Peace Corps. She spent 2 years planning for her adventure. She raised money for her 2 year “job”, she gave up her actual job and her apartment, she told everyone she knew she was going and, when the time came, she came to her going away party. She was so excited to see the world and be of service at the same time. That, though, is not the brave part. The brave part came 30 days later, when she came home. She came home and humbly told all of her people “I was wrong, I couldn’t do it, it wasn’t right for me. I wanted to change the world, do some good, but I knew, in the pit of my stomach, almost as soon as I got there, that it just wanted right for me. And now I’m home, with nothing”.
She is now in a new apartment, with a new job, with all of her people around her, and she holds her head up high, even though there are undoubtedly people out there judging her a “failure”. She, in my mind, is the true meaning of success. She took her failure and announced it. She claimed it. She didn’t hide, or shrink, or move or crumble up into a heap on the floor. She is one of my idols and when Fear starts to creep into my soul I think of her.
That is courage: The ability to do what needs to be done, even though it will be hard and painful, and regardless of the consequence to yourself.
I challenge any of you to tell a braver story then that. Who do you know that is brave?