I just read a wonderful story in the July 21, 2017, issue of Time. Written by cancer survivor Josh Friedman, it’s about an ordinary man who got a cancer diagnosis and didn’t take it particularly well. In fact, his behavior was the complete opposite of what our culture expects of people who’ve been told they have a life-limiting illness. He wasn’t “brave” or “courageous” in the face of terrible news. As he tells the story, he really wasn’t able to “face” the news at all. He behaved like a cross between a “chicken and an ostrich,” either quaking in terror or burying his head in the sand.
And the point his story makes so well is that all of that behavior was perfectly okay.
Americans are quintessential hero worshipers, and our heroes are almost always men and women who “fight the good fight.” We equate courage with goodness. And we believe — we truly believe — that true grit and an iron will can save us from nearly any plight.
Just look at the way we frame our narratives around cancer and other life-limiting illnesses. We don’t say someone is living with cancer; we say they’re “battling” it. We don’t say someone is suffering from heart disease; we say they’re “fighting” it. We don’t support people who are dealing with a terrifying reality with words that encourage introspection and self care. We tell them to “be brave” and “stay strong.” And though we do this with the very best intentions, it nonetheless reinforces the erroneous belief that being brave can buy you a cure. And absolutely nothing could be further from the truth.
You don’t battle cancer. You don’t fight it. If cancer wants you it sneaks into your room at night and just takes you. It doesn’t care if you’re John Wayne or John McCain ~ Josh Friedman
Putting on a brave face works for some people. I have a friend who had advanced throat cancer who “toughed out” six months of debilitating treatment because he completely believed that he could will his cancer away. And now, three years out from his original diagnosis and still in remission, he continues to believe the same thing.
But if he were right, lots of incredibly brave people I’ve known would still be alive today. And all of the so-called “cowards” like Josh Friedman would be dead.
The truth is, life and death just don’t work that way. The things that help you survive a serious illness are good medical and nursing care, good support systems, good genes and a whole heck of a lot of good luck. No one can think or believe or pray their illness away. To pretend that we can is tempting, certainly. It gives us the illusion of control. But it also places a tremendous burden on those who are ill.
It’s a truly terrible thing to tell someone who has a terminal illness to be brave. Sick people need comfort and support. They need us to be strong so they can be weak. They need us to say that that they are under no obligation to continue “fighting” a battle they can’t win, and that stopping treatment is neither “giving up” nor “giving in.” They need us to understand that dying is a terrifying journey. And most importantly, they need us to be brave enough to meet their fear with acceptance, compassion and love.
Because the truth is, there’s a Terminator out there for each one of us. But when it finally finds you has nothing to do with how fast you run, or how tough you are, or how good a person you’ve been ~ Josh Friedman
Each month Kathleen Clohessy, R.N., offers a new perspective on living with a terminal illness. Kathleen comes to SevenPonds with 25 years experience as a registered nurse caring for families and children facing life-threatening illness. She began her career in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Nassau County Medical Center in New York. After relocating to California, she spent 15 years as an R.N. and Assistant Nurse Manager at the Pediatric Oncology & Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at Lucille Salter Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. She uses her knowledge and expertise to enlighten our readers about the challenges associated with chronic illness and its effects on family relationships.