Ever notice the comments people make when extraordinary hardship befalls another? They might say, “You’re so strong, so brave.” In the unfortunate person’s absence, those words translate differently: “I could never go through that!” My response? It’s not like so-and-so had a choice, decided they could and volunteered. Uncle Sam

Who knows why we get cancer, but I’m certain one of the reasons is not innate bravery. No application process exists to weed out the meek from the daring, sending the weaker elements home to deal with lesser problems. Unlike enlisting in the military, it’s more like being drafted and there’s no way out but through.

At best, it’s like mandatory reading of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Once inside, there are choices in treatment, second opinions, and a person’s own unique factors that all weigh in a course of action. But let’s be clear: We are not brave; we are chosen.

I often get the BRAVE tag slapped on my lapel. In truth, if I fought a valiant battle, it’s not because I was brave; it’s because I was scared — scared for my life.

The day before my first chemo, I sat alone in my office, unable to work. The fear of the imminent sliced through me, rendering me into a thousand fragments of what used to be a together person. My hands visibly shook while I gut-sobbed at my desk. I had to call my son, a wise and compassionate young man who knew just what to say to give me strength.

Portrait of a Brave Soul

Portrait of a Brave Soul

This is what a “brave” soul looks like. Not a morning person, and even less enthused about what waited inside, trepidation colored my face as I anticipated walking through the doors of that building to receive my first infusion. Of course, I got used to it, but being a chemo virgin, I was somewhat shy.

Everyone’s different. I certainly wasn’t Marisa Ococella Marchetto, author of the wonderful, Cancer Vixen, who dressed stylishly to every chemo. I wore clothes to throw up in, and judging from what occurred several hours later, I’d say I made a good call.

At least I’m equipped with blanket and book bag slung over my shoulder. What’s in the bag? A couple of books, phone, notepad and … oh, crap! Where’s a set of balls when I need ’em!

We often rise up toward strength because we have no choice but to meet our demons head-on and duke it out. We discover we can handle more than we knew. We learn that, yes, we can go through it after all, even if we wish we never found that out.

So we put one foot in front of the other just to keep moving because moving is what living things do. Running is what scared things do, and even that is done to stay alive.

For those enlisted in the boot camp of illness, no amount of moxie can prepare for what lies ahead. Cancer knocks on our door and drags us from the house while we kick and scream, digging our heels so deep into the carpet, we get permanent rug burns. And you thought it was from the rads.


  1. Really good post. I get so tired of the “brave” sticker that everyone posts on me. I’m not brave, I’m running for my life.

  2. Lisa DeFerrari says

    So well said, Eileen. Bravery just doesn’t factor into the equation – you simply make the necessary decisions, and then do what you have to do. As you said, it isn’t as though we had any choice in the matter!

  3. Brenda and Lisa, thanks for the feedback. I only wish it were a choice. The world would be cancer-free.

  4. Linda Rochelle Malis says

    That’s a great article Eileen. Reality is, that it’s not about bravery…cancer knows no religion, race, sex or age. I pray there will be a cure.

  5. dear eileen,

    the truth you speak resonates so deeply. at the time of my diagnosis, december of last year, my husband had already been diagosed with multiple myeloma three years before, had chemo, surgeries, PTSD, 2 stem cell transplants, depresssion and debilitating fatigue. we had to tell our kids that both of us now would tangle with 2 incurable cancers for the rest of our lives WTF??? we were not brave. we were worn out, knocked down, scared witless, but NOT brave. imagine that moniker, “brave” being slapped on our chests – it became downright offensive and infuriating. it was not a compliment to us. what we were was just a teensy bit seasoned – with crappy dumb cancer. we wished we were seasoned in other areas – in tennis, in being connoiseurs of wine and travel or deep sea diving. but NOT in cancer. that came calling TWICE, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE!!! but seasoning served us well to quickly rear up on our hind legs and ask, “what’s the plan?” of ourselves, and our medical team. then we became calm and resolved – but NOT brave. we got our act together to take one day at a time, backed with a modicum of confidence in ourselves to be each others advocates and had great trust and loving regard for our dream team of medical experts. to be truthful, we were often just to damned tired to be brave, and were much better served at times to hide in our bed and wallow in all the folderol of it all, exhausted from running from medical pillar to post. a badge from the energizer bunny might have been a fitting accolade, but never brave.

    now, on the other side, in ned for me and remission for hugh, we may have accumulated some degree of bravery. once, a fabulous blogger, terri wingham of “a fresh chapter” who has become a beloved friend, spoke of the poet rainer rilke who wrote in his letter on sadness, “what if all the dragons in our lives are really princesses, waiting to see us both beautiful and brave?”
    it’s through the PROCESS we become brave if we are lucky enough to count ourselves fortunate. we did the work of cancer because we wanted to live, and waggling a badge of bravery had nothing to do with that. but in the end (which we all know may be fleeting), we are beautiful and brave. but be assured, if cancer comes calling again, as we know it can, bravery will be out the window. screaming mimies, cursing with every expletive in several languages, and the dreadful task of facing de ja vue, all over again will be the order of THAT day. meanwhile, we live, each day more grateful and high on life that ever, loving, savoring everyone and everything we love. in the face of what could happen down the road i think we’re brave, but more than that, i think we are committed – to be living fully, to face the days that aren’t as easy as we would wish, and to just keep going, being good citizens of the planet, celebrating the glories of the natural world, and to giving back to others whatever good fortune we’ve received.

    love, xo,

    karen, TC

  6. Karen, you and your husband have sure been through a lot. I’m certain people mean well when they call us Brave. They just don’t know what to say and they try to be encouraging. Thanks so much for sharing with me. I wish I could hug you, but a virtual one will have to do. xoxo

  7. Excellent BRAVE post. You captured my sentiments exactly once again. Every time someone tells me that I was brave to go through what I did, I cringe and speak up. “I wasn’t brave. I just did what I had to do, given the options, got through to the other side and it wasn’t easy. Being brave had nothing to do with it.”

  8. thank you, eileen. and virtual hugs right back to you!

    love, karen, TC

  9. Love it, Eileen! Beautifully said. Your humor – and, yes, courage – are full to the max with wisdom.

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