“We know the dirty secret: You don’t battle cancer. You don’t fight it. If cancer wants you, it walks into your room at night and just takes you. It doesn’t give a damn how tough you are. The only way you survive is through a mix of science, early detection, health insurance and luck. Courage has nothing to do with it.”
Josh Friedman :It’s O.K. to be a coward about cancer, Time Magazine August 7, 2017
I read this article article several months ago and dog eared it, then ripped from the spine, and more recently scribbled notes on it. I needed to mull it over, process what Josh Friedman, the screenwriter, was actually saying. He is a self proclaimed coward, one who felt utterly betrayed by his body. And to me that makes perfect sense. I too am a coward who felt betrayed by her own body. I was afraid that death would come from me like a scene out of the Deathly Hallows in Harry Potter. (We just watched all seven movies these past few weekends, hence the reference.) It had come for so many before me without any consideration for the incredible human it may have captured. At no point did I wrap my wrists and put on pink boxing gloves and think I will strike back hard and death will retreat. That’s just not a thing. People tell me all of the time how brave I am or how strong, but in all sincerity I got lucky. I say that with certainty because one of the strongest and bravest people I had ever known didn’t make it. And for that I agree with Josh Friedman ” Because when we glorify strength without showing empathy for weakness, we end up with a toxic version of heroism, one that links bravery to goodness and cowardice to getting what you deserve.” No one deserves cancer and the people who don’t survive it are no less brave than those who do.
The ‘battlefield’ of cancer is difficult to navigate. There is no right way to deal for the patient, their loved ones, caregivers, friends, colleagues, etc. and yet it feels like their should be. Like maybe someone needs to write a What to expect when your expecting cancer handbook. One that outlines how each party should respond. What to do or not to do. What to say or not to say. I don’t have those answers. Even in the aftermath, I have absolutely no idea. What I know is that it’s never over. Cancer will forever be part of the life you have. And it may manifest as scanxiety at yearly appointments, ptsd, depression, brain fog, physical disabilities, etc. Or may be a shift in thinking, a new zeal for life. Regardless of the good or bad, it exists. The fear of dying doesn’t just one day disappear. If anything you make peace with it and pray that you have the ‘invisible cloak’ that keeps death from finding you for a very long time.
I think it’s important to say out loud that it’s okay to be a coward about cancer. It’s okay to full fledge panic when you hear those words applied to you. It’s okay that the experience sticks with you. No one else has to understand it. You hope others empathize, but sometimes it’s inconceivable unless it’s happening to you. I think the true test of courage is in your resiliency. Can you face crushing disappointment time and again and still find a way to keep pushing forward? Were you able to be thankful for the life you had even when the future seemed improbable? Those aren’t easy things and I commend anyone whether they have ever had a life threatening illness or not who is able to do that.
I guess I needed to mull over this article to acknowledge that no part of this experience has been without cost. And no part has been without fear. And even so, every single time I hear the lyrics:
This is my fight song
Take back my life song
Prove I’m alright song
I want to shout them at the top of my lungs. (Maybe I would have said sing if I wasn’t tone deaf, but I can’t really be sure about that.) But I think it’s important to note that I am no braver or stronger than anyone else. I did what I had to do and thankfully it has worked thus far. I had my nine month scan, with minimal scanxiety attached, and had no evidence of disease or lymphoma progression. I got my first set of vaccines and was cleared to return to work with the understanding that I had to remain vigilant about keeping a distance from sick people and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. More on how I accomplish that in the future. I know that I am grateful for my resiliency but I am equally grateful for having an opportunity to grow emotionally and spiritually as a result. I can ask for help, something I struggled with in the past. I can tell people no, because I no longer need to please. I can relax. I can love fiercely. I can be a better friend.
So it’s okay to be a coward, it’s okay to fight, it’s okay to be numb, it’s okay to feel too much. It’s up to you. Cancer doesn’t decide.