Sunday, May 15, 2016

Don't Call Me Brave

There's this weird thing that happens when you are diagnosed with cancer. Suddenly, and sort of inexplicably, people begin to call you brave. It's a surprise that you don't really see coming. Sure, I've said it about others, but it's not something I was prepared to hear about myself. BRAVE. It's just weird. People call me courageous. Inspiring, even. People say things to me like, "Your bravery is an inspiration." Or "I'm so impressed by your courage."

These phrases are meant as compliments. The people who say them mean well. "You're so brave" is a phrase that is uttered with affection, but as a person diagnosed with cancer, it strikes me as the oddest thing people say to me. 

Don't get me wrong. It feels nice to be told I am brave or courageous. It's a nice little ego boost. Obviously, it feels good on an interpersonal level to have people saying nice things about me. Like everyone, I want to be liked and admired. I want to be brave.

But the thing is, I know in my heart of hearts that it simply isn't true.

I have done absolutely nothing that would earn me a badge of bravery. Being diagnosed with breast cancer is something that happened to me. It is not something I chose. It is not something I created. Undergoing treatment for cancer is also something that is happening to me. Sure, I could have forgone treatment, but that would have been rather stupid. So really, the best that can really be said about me is that I am not a blubbering imbecile.

When I think of brave people, I think of people who run toward a fire to save others. I think of people who travel halfway around the world to open clinics in under-served third world countries. I think of people who face discrimination and violence to stand up to injustice in the world. These people are brave. These people are heroes. Not me.

All I do is lay on the couch in a stupor and occasionally vomit. I'm just a person with a shitty disease.

I know when people read this, they will say, "But you are fighting so hard. And you have such a good attitude."

Again, not particularly courageous. Survival is a basic human instinct. I am doing nothing more than ensuring my own survival, at this point. Complying with treatment, resting when I am told to rest, taking my medication - these are not courageous acts. They are simply the necessary steps I must take to ensure that I get through this alive. Even my positive attitude in a conscious act of survival. Believe me, the thoughts that go through my head in the dark, alone at night, are not the thoughts of a hero. They are not the reflections of a brave individual. It would be easy to succumb to these thoughts.

There is a song  from the musical Hamilton called It's Quiet Uptown. In it, the characters are singing about the grief of losing their son. There is a lyric that goes, "The moments when you're in so deep, it feels easier to just swim down." That is how cancer treatment can make you feel. On my "bad" days after chemo, I often feel like I am drowning in the sheer exhaustion. I feel like I am physically sinking and my life is no longer my own. And on these days, it seems like it would be so much easier to just swim down than it is to aim for the surface. But swimming down would be admitting defeat. And as a human, survival is my foremost instinct. So every single time, I swim up. I slowly come out of the fog and back into the land of the living. It's not bravery that forces me to do this time and again. It is simply the basic human instinct to survive. 

So I laugh. And I make jokes from my perch on the couch. I write blogs about how ridiculous and foreign and absurd cancer treatment is. And I assure my children that I will be perfectly fine. I push the anxiety and worry to the side - not because I am brave, but because every primitive instinct within me is screaming that these thoughts are not helpful. These thoughts are not beneficial. They will not contribute to my survival.

Tomorrow, I will go for my fourth AC chemo treatment. If the third round is any indicator, it is not going to be fun. But I will swim up. I will come out of the fog. I will laugh. I will play. I will maintain a positive attitude at all costs - I will believe all the way down to the very marrow in my bones that the chemo is working. That the treatment is succeeding. To think otherwise is completely outside of the realm of possibility.

I am not brave. I am not courageous. I am human. And like every single one of us, I will do what it takes to survive. I have no choice - it is ingrained in my DNA to do exactly that.

Trust me. You would all do the exact same in my shoes.


Lee Witte said...

Okay, so maybe you're not brave. Maybe you're just a scared little girl clinging to any glimmer of hope or, dare I suggest, pleasure that you are able to find. Perhaps that's true. But you are doing so with immeasurable outward grace and dignity, and the words write in this blog are an inspiration to anyone who reads them. And that's I have to say about that. I love you, Shannon!

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