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On cancer and courage

When you are diagnosed with cancer and go into treatment, people often find you courageous. It happens all over, with every type of cancer. In fact, a Google search for cancer and courage generates over 28 million hits.

I struggled with the cancer-courage link when making my way through diagnosis, surgery, chemo, and radiation – because I didn’t feel courageous. Yes, I did whatever I could to stay alive. When you know you have cancer and you want to keep living, you choose a course of action and follow it. I didn’t connect this determination to courage – it felt like pure survival instinct.

As I went to infusions and appointments, took medications, and attempted to function, friends and family saw courage in my putting one foot in front of the other. They told me so and wrote me cards and notes about it. At the time, I was flattered but kind of bewildered. What they took away from seeing me go through treatment didn’t seem to match up with how I felt inside. I felt a little bit like an impostor, unintentionally impersonating a courageous individual.

Fast forward to yesterday, when I sat talking with a friend who was recently diagnosed with cancer. She is starting chemo soon. Among other things we discussed the medication she will be taking – it’s an oral chemo, not an infusion. At first I felt relieved that she doesn’t have to go to the infusion center and deal with IVs or a port. But something else occurred to me: When your chemo is a pill, you need to motivate yourself to get the pill, put it in your mouth, and swallow it. You must take initiative every day to continue your treatment. My next thought was, That’s courageous.

Later, remembering my own experience and wondering if my friend was feeling less courageous than I perceived her to be, a lesson from my days studying acting at Catholic University came to mind. Bill Graham, Sr., then the chair of the Drama department, often said to us: “Don’t deny the experience of your audience.” To paraphrase his explanation: Let's say you just had what you consider your worst performance ever. Then a friend comes to you after the show and, through tears, says your work was profoundly moving. How do you respond? On the one hand, you could be honest: “Are you kidding? That was the worst show I’ve had, I was totally phoning it in.” This denies the experience of your audience, robbing them of what they’ve gained from the performance and cheapening their heartfelt emotions. On the other hand, you could simply say, “Thank you” – thereby validating what the audience felt, learned, and experienced. From this story, I understood how the performer’s truth and the audience’s truth do not have to match for the audience to take away profound gifts.

I see now that Mr. Graham’s wisdom applies far beyond the stage. Even if the courage I see in my friend is my perception and not hers, the way it inspires me is real. That inspiration got me through the day today. Nothing fake about that.

To my friends and family who told me I was courageous: Thank you. I have a new understanding. I do not deny your experience, no matter how different it may be in any given moment from what I feel. If there is something positive and useful you took away from me being in cancer treatment, I am so glad.

To my friend starting chemo: I see great courage in you, and you inspire me. I know I am not the only one who feels this way. I hope you keep this in mind, no matter how it differs from your own feelings, as you work your way down this unexpected path.

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