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Stop Telling Me I'm Brave

"I could never be as strong as you." "You're so brave." "You are a warrior."

These are actual statements made to me since my diagnosis in 2021. After seeing photos, visiting my blog, and reading my memoir, people feel compelled to send me these types of well-meaning messages. These sound, on the surface, like compliments, but really these just underscore the fact that most people don't understand what having cancer is like.

Here's how it went down for me (and probably for most new cancer patients): I heard the words, "It's colon cancer," at 5:30 a.m., my new oncologist, who I had never met before this moment, standing at the foot of my hospital bed. I was groggy from a night of intense pain, multiple morphine pushes, and a surplus of anxiety. His words were like a mist net, a full stop on my insouciant flight through my life. As far as I was concerned, this was not a call-to-arms.

"You'll have to have chemotherapy, which we'll begin as soon as you can have your portacath installed," my new oncologist continued. I don't believe I said a word to him other than, "Uh-huh," and nodded along with the information he was giving me. He told me that as I recovered, it would be easier to think about what was happening. "This is all temporary," he said, giving my foot a friendly squeeze through the blankets.

Chemotherapy... my brain echoed with this word nearly non-stop for the next 30 days. Chemotherapy... I've seen the movies and the tv shows where people sit in a sterile room with other cancer patients, everyone languishing in their vinyl chairs, with bags of yellow and red drugs dripping into the IV in their hand. They go home and puke their brains out, they go to work and puke their brains out, they rush out of bed in the middle of the night to puke their brains out. What appears to be the next day, their hair begins to fall out in clumps. And this is where female characters in particular, gather up their bad-assery and start shaving their heads like G.I. Jane. Boom! Ready for battle.

We never see the other, more subtle side effects of chemo--the side effects that actually disrupt our lives and make it difficult to do the every day normal things. These were the side effects I worried about the most. In the weeks before I began the drugs, the nurses in the oncology office told me that everyone's experience is unique and just because someone has one side effect, it doesn't mean that everyone does.

Great. So what does this mean for me? Until I was actually on the drugs, no one could tell me for sure what would happen. It was that fear of the unknown that plagued my every waking moment--including those at 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. I wasn't gathering up my courage, I was cowering. If I don't think about it, then maybe it isn't real. Maybe I dreamt the conversation with the oncologist; maybe my diagnosis is only in my head and I am living in a hallucination. The problem was that it seemed like my husband was preparing me for chemotherapy, so it must be real if he believes it.

I made it through my first round of chemo in 2022, pretty much in one piece. I was thinner and exhausted, but I was generally doing great. The side effects that had plagued me (neuropathy, mouth sores, fatigue, constipation, hand and foot syndrome, loss of appetite, hair loss, just to name a few) resolved themselves within 6 weeks of the end of treatment. Chemo had been awful, but I had come through the other side. By June of 2022, chemo was a memory.

Flash forward to October 2023, same oncologist, same announcement: "You'll have to have chemo." This time, I let out a big sigh, blinked back tears, and said, "This really sucks."

It did and does really suck. Who wants to go through chemo again? Not me. And yet... did I have a choice?

"If you were standing on top of a burning building and a helicopter appeared and dropped a rope ladder, would you say you needed to think about it before climbing up?" -- End of Watch, Stephen King

I did not. None of us with a cancer diagnosis really have a choice in the matter. Cancer has chosen us. It has infiltrated and affected our bodies in ways we never imagined, usually long before we felt any symptoms. With a Stage-4C diagnosis, I had many questions, mostly about my own awareness and ignorance. Did I bring this on myself? Should I have recognized X, Y, or Z as a symptom of cancer and seen my doctor sooner? If I had seen my doctor in June instead of September, would I only have had a Stage-1 or Stage-2 diagnosis?

What if? What if? What if?

Staring down the barrel at another 6-dose round of chemotherapy, I had never felt less brave. I wasn't crying because the liver tumors were back, I was crying because I didn't want to have chemo again. Like a child throwing a temper tantrum, except I didn't throw myself on the floor and kick like a lunatic. Believe me, there were moments when I was one step away from doing just that. Now the chant from my brain was chemo again? Chemo again? Again? ...again...? I didn't want to lose my hair. I didn't want to be quarantined. I didn't want any of it.

I stopped short of asking my oncologist, "Are you sure I have to do this again? Can't we just go straight to surgery?" because I trust him. There are people who told me to get a second opinion--my surgeon gave his! There were people that told me to go to UCLA instead of staying at the Disney Family Cancer Center--no way! There were people who questioned my decision to follow his medical advice--unthinkable! Unlike a lot of horror stories I've heard from other cancer patients receiving poor care or worse, who have been written off by their oncology team, I have a pretty good thing going there at DFCC. And I'm not the only one--I have never heard a single complaint by any past or current patient about any of the oncologists who work there. So every time someone outside my circle questioned my trust in my team, they were adding to my fears, unbalancing me, and chipping away at my confidence in "the plan."

I'm not brave, I'm a regular person. My public "face" is one of courage and strength because that's what people want to see when they look at my social media. The irony is that my intention in posting photos of myself during chemo was to show the reality of cancer--what it does to our bodies and to our spirits. My book was a study in positive thinking; it was not about being brave. Cancer treatments are tough for the toughest of people to get through, but we do it. Not because we're brave, but because we have to. What other choice do we have?

For someone who does not have cancer, the idea of having cancer is so far outside their reality that they can never fully grasp just how awful the treatments are for us. They might think they understand, and their empathy is a welcome and necessary part of our support system, but they don't. And they should be thankful they don't. But rest assured, if they heard the dreaded words, "You have cancer," they, too, would suddenly "become brave" and face down the disease by any means necessary. But it's not bravery like reaching your hand into a dark, hollow tree stump. This is the kind of one foot in front of the other action that keeps us moving forward, no matter the obstacles. "I have to do chemo? Fine." "Now I have have radiation? Ok." "More surgery? Whatever." We do it because the alternative is unacceptable.

We all have moments when we waver. "How can I possibly take 3 more doses of this stuff?" We cry. We scream. We rage. We crumple to the floor. But then we get up, wipe off our cheeks, and stand up straight as we walk into our next treatment. Don't tell me I'm brave.


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