Monday, May 7, 2007

Loved Ones Recall Local Man's Cowardly Battle With Cancer

Did you laugh out loud when you read this headline from the satirical newspaper, The Onion? I did.

Why is it that the use of the words "cowardly" and "cancer" in the same sentence tickles our funny bones? Comedy critics would tell us that it's the surprise factor or incongruous pairing that produces the chuckles. We expect cancer battlers to be strong and courageous, not weak and cowardly.

All of this has inspired me to think about why most of us naturally ascribe these adjectives, strong and courageous, to those battling cancer. Over the decades, I've known many friends and acquaintances (several of whom have died from the disease) who battled cancer. Each did it in his or her own way, but in every case I would describe the person and their battle as strong and courageous.

And, yet, most of us who are currently in the trenches feel uncomfortable with these descriptors. Jonathan Alter, in his Newsweek cover story about his battle with mantle cell lymphoma, described it this way. “Friends later said I handled it courageously, but they were wrong. American culture rewards cheerful stoicism, a quality that cancer patients usually display in public but find difficult to sustain in private.”

I often think of Alter's words when I find myself crushed with emotions that are contrary to the "cheerful stoicism" I usually display and genuinely feel. After my last release from the City of Hope, I was required to report back on the following day at 8:30 am. I was exhausted. I was dealing with the loss of my hair. My body was covered with unhealed sores, a cheetah-like rash and bruises. My lower legs looked like they were decorated in dots with a red, fine-point Sharpie. (I later learned that this is a hallmark of a low blood platelet count.) I was hideous. As I burst into tears while walking from the parking lot to the hospital, I thought, "I'm NOT strong and courageous. I'm weak and cowardly."

The truth is that I was a person in need of support, a hug, encouraging words, and I got all of those things as soon as I walked through the doors of Hope. And I got it later when I talked with friends who had experienced a similar ride on the cancer coaster.

One definition of "courageous" is "consciously rising to a specific test by drawing on a reserve of inner strength." I like this definition because the implication is that the corageous person doesn't know the reserve existed prior to the "test." When I admire someone else for being "strong and courageous," my unspoken questions are always, "Could I rise to the occasion if the same thing happened to me?" and "Do I have the necessary reserve of inner strength?"

I find myself asking these questions a lot these days. Whenever I see a mom with a young child with leukemia. After I chat with patients whose primary residences are out of state and they are taking up temporary residence in So. Cal. while undergoing treatment at CoH. When I make contact with someone who has undergone more than one bone marrow or stem cell transplant. When I talk with someone whose disease has come back after being in remission.

I ask myself these questions every time I think of my friend Wayne, a 65-year-old college math professor, who biked daily from Altadena to LA. After a freak cycling accident in February, he is a quadriplegic. This formerly physical and mental athlete is just now beginning to regain feeling and movement in the tips of his fingers. When I spoke with him two weeks ago, he, like Christopher Reeve, was quick to point out, "I'm still Wayne."

There's no doubt that Wayne epitomizes strength and courage. Could I be as courageous under the same circumstances?

Wayne’s life changed dramatically from one moment to the next with no time to mentally or physically prepare. Mine, on the other hand, has been a gradual adjustment. When my ocular surgeon told me that the tumor on my eye was mantle cell lymphoma, he added that I would most likely be treated with radiation therapy. I thought, "I can deal with radiation, but I don't think I can handle chemo." The next thing I knew, my hematologist told me that I would be undergoing chemo and I thought, "Once every three weeks. That's not so bad. I can handle that." In the end, doctors told me, "You must undergo a high-dosage treatment as an in-patient and you will have a stem cell transplant when it's all over."

By the time I heard these words, I was ready to digest them. If I had heard them right after the initial diagnosis, I doubt that I would have been able to "consciously tap into reserves of strength" as quickly.

When we were going through our turbulent years with Cindy, I was active on a listserve for parents whose children attended the same group of "emotional growth" boarding schools. Parents sometimes posted chilling stories about children who ran away from the programs, which were typically located in rural or mountainous areas. At the time, I thought, "I don't think I have the strength to handle it if Cindy ran away." Two years later, she did just that from a program in Utah. And, of course, I did handle it; I had no choice. It was an excruciatingly difficult time, but we all got through that and other crises, thanks in no small part to others who had been on or were traveling similar journeys.

I find myself wondering the same thing about cancer returning after being in remission - that dangling sword of Damocles that threatens every cancer patient and survivor. Naturally, I believe it when I tell myself that I'm gonna' kick this MCL to the ground so that it never comes back up again. But after Elizabeth Edwards' cancer returned, I heard a commentator state that our society puts tremendous pressure on cancer survivors to do just that. The reality is that cancer sometimes returns, regardless of the treatments and the attitude of the patient.

In spite of my fears, I know deep down inside that I will deal with what I have to deal with when I have to deal with it, with the help of my family and friends. Sometimes I think the most courageous thing we can do is to admit that we have no (or a limited supply of) inner strength and seek out others, both professionally and personally, who can help us through these "tests."

And that, my friends, is no laughing matter.


Suzy Keleher said...

These songs came to mind: "you just call out my name and you know wherever i am, i'll come running...and, "you've got a friend. You've got a friend in've got a friend in me"...i made this one up: I have one shoulder to cry on and one to punch! Sweet Susan, You are no less our hero in times of tears and fears. Sharing your humanity with us is precious and sacred. I am crying with you. lay it all at His feet...I love you, Suze

Janet Aird said...

Wow, Susan. I'm glad you know you don't have to feel strong all the time. I'm also very glad you know you can count on us whenever you need us. I'm available for hugs any time.

Lilli said...

"Sometimes I think the most courageous thing we can do is to admit that we have no (or a limited supply of) inner strength and seek out others..."

You are so right about this. I think we often mistake being courageous and strong for being fiercely self-sufficient.

But being courageous and strong is also knowing when to ask for help and, perhaps even harder, allowing others to give us that help.

Friends aren't just for the good times. Friends are for all times.

denise said...

One big hug your way.


Karen said...

Susan, these posts of yours are so powerful. Honesty and love require more courage than anything I can think of, and you have "honesty and love reserves" in abundance.

People who don't know fear can't be courageous, they can only be foolhardy. It's facing fear that takes courage. Facing it, and blinking, yet continuing to face it, and to call it by name, without losing your mind, or your gratitude for what remains. Sure, there are times when even the bravest and the strongest lose focus, see what is happening and feel appalled, maybe (I'm projecting, here) even when they even panic. But the amazing thing about YOU is that, when your vision clears, your compassion for yourself and your loved ones and everyone who is suffering (which is, at one time or another, all of us) returns, deeper, stronger, and more insightful than before.

You have seen so much more than most of us hope and fear ever to be burdened, or blessed, with, and STILL you continue to reach out to the world, come what may, not just tolerantly or stoically, but enthusiastically, with open arms and a brilliantly curious, beautifully hopeful and incisively intelligent mind.

Susan, you are an inspiration and a wonder. I love you!

Paula Johnson said...

Great post, as always. (Like that scarf/tote, it's SO you. Heh, heh, inside joke.)

I received an announcement about Medical Arts, a new event sponsored by NewTown, This caught my eye:

Susan Braig's "Pink Robbin: The Best Medicine"
Along with musicians Joe Berardi, Emily Hay, Arthur Jarvinen and Kira Vollman, satirizes the human/grug exegesis through the chemotherapy process.

I know not what "grug" is. Susan?

The show closes this weekend, so I better get moving if I want to see it.

Anonymous said...


Let the words flow freely...they touch and nurture. You're helping all of us as well as yourself. Write On!

--Rich Nemec

Diane Fisher said...

I have been accused of being courageous a couple of times myself. It may have looked that way to others, or even to me when I look back. But at the time, I thought what I had was FOCUS. I had a goal to meet (go all the way through with the damned divorce this time!) or a big problem to solve, and that thing became the most important and I grabbed onto it and wouldn't let go until it was finished.
Whether I could summon that kind of "focus" in any other kind of situation, I do not know. But perhaps that is what courage is, at the end of the day. The ability and the willingness to look at the situation clearly and unblinkingly and deal with it. Which is exactly what you are doing.
I am so grateful that you have chosen to write about and share your journey with us.
Love, Diane

Anonymous said...

Susan - you WILL make it. And we will help you. You can count on us!

Lisa C.

JN said...

Susan, I am humbled by your willingness to share your innermost feelings under these circumstances and in this forum. Thank you. Jane