Writing a letter to the editor of my hometown newspaper about the many faces of bravery got me thinking. For many people, cancer patients are likened to soldiers facing a battle, not knowing the outcome. I spent many summers of my childhood walking in Relay for Life marathons for cancer fundraising, during which cancer survivors were given survivor medals. Dad’s medal is still hanging in his former home office. Seeing it used to give me hope, but now there’s something about it that bothers me.
The people who lost the “battle” aren’t getting any medals. And it should go without saying that the biggest difference between a solider fighting for his country and a person fighting a disease is that a soldier chooses to enlist in battle. Cancer patients don’t get the luxury of choice.
What are we really saying when we call cancer patients “brave”? The reality is, no matter how you handle your diagnosis, you must show up for treatment if you don’t want to die. You can kick and scream your whole way there, but that doesn’t make you less brave than someone who shows up calmly. You could have an absolutely crappy attitude about life being unfair, but I think cancer patients have earned the right to be a little negative. While science has shown that a positive attitude can influence a person’s health, it’s far from being a cure. If that were true, my father would still be alive – he was the most optimistic person I’ve ever known.
It wasn’t the cancer that made my father brave. Choosing optimism in the face of any negative circumstances is a brave choice, I think. Choosing to see the good in people no matter what is a brave choice. Reaching out to people with a helping hand and open heart, despite the risk of rejection, is brave. Speaking your mind without fear of judgment is brave. Even choosing fatherhood was brave – perhaps the bravest decision he ever made. Just being my father made him my hero. My dad was brave before cancer, and he would have been brave if he never had cancer.
Only at the very end of his life did he talk about some of the pressure he felt to live, as if dying would let people down. As if anyone would blame him for “giving up”! As if dying = no longer brave, no longer a hero.
While having an illness can strengthen a person in many ways, I do think that we need to be careful about idolizing cancer patients. The hospice nurses encouraged my family to give Dad “permission” to let go when it was time. I know that saying “You’re gonna beat this” is said with good intentions, but sometimes the people we love need to hear that it’s okay if they don’t. How a person lives matters more than how they die. We don’t get a say in how we meet death, but how we live says more about our strength than anything.