On Being Brave

By Marlene Stager, MS
Support Connection Peer Counselor

Feeling frightened is often equated with being weak. We all experience feelings of fear from time to time. It can jade our perspective of our own strength and inaccurately define what it means to be courageous. Each one of us deserves to be true to ourselves and define our own strength.

None of us was gifted at birth with a crystal ball or impenetrable shield. You’ve been told “You have cancer.” As you wrap your mind around those words, hopes and dreams may come to a screeching halt. Confidence in what is and what will be can be undermined. Your sense of self-assuredness may abandon you.

What exactly is bravery? Merriam-Webster defines it as: “the quality or state of having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty; the quality or state of being brave; courage.”

Fear and difficulty can have many faces. For example: Fear of diagnosis. Fear of making the wrong choices. Difficulty communicating to loved ones that you are not comfortable with current medical recommendations and want to pursue different or fewer treatment options. Fear of the impact your diagnosis is having on loved ones. Difficulty in acknowledging and accepting the importance of prioritizing your needs, and re-framing that importance as wisdom, not selfishness. Fear of the impact a diagnosis may have on job and career. Fear of uncertainty and loss of control.

So think about this. When faced with a cancer diagnosis, how much courage and strength is needed to:

  • Do things “your way,” to make choices that best fit your needs, especially if they’re contrary to contemporary medical practices?
  • Hear your inner voice and give it a role in guiding you?
  • Be able to put your needs first when the physical and emotional feelings that accompany such action are foreign and uncomfortable to you and those around you?
  • Take a break, when you are the doer, the achiever, the caretaker?
  • Acknowledge your personal needs and vulnerabilities in order to pursue and obtain supports you feel can help you?
  • Reach out for the supports you believe will help you navigate a pathway you never expected to walk?
  • Articulate your reservations, your uncertainties, your vulnerabilities to your medical team and advocate for answers to the difficult or uncomfortable questions?
  • Say “no” when a recommendation doesn’t feel right, or you’re not ready?
  • Say “yes” when you are all alone in that determination?
  • Adjust the bar of self-expectation, facilitating a sense of peace, progress and sanity?

In my opinion, it takes courage to embrace being a human being who does not fit the role of Wonder Woman, and to do so without explanation, justification or apology.

I also believe it takes a great deal of courage and bravery to continue moving forward, with baby steps if necessary, when feeling ill prepared to take on what you must to address your health needs, while the media floods us with terms like warrior and slayer.

I find this quote from Nelson Mandela to be fitting and reassuring: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to triumph over it.” It takes courage to continue living each day as it comes, to once again find joy in life after cancer diagnosis, and to acknowledge that sometimes fears creep in.

Courage and bravery, like so many aspects of living with a cancer diagnosis, are deeply personal. Give yourself permission to define them in the way that works best for you.