Please, Don’t Call Me Brave

Have you ever noticed that people pull out war terminology when describing the cancer experiences of others?

She died after a brave fight against cancerHe lost his courageous battle with cancer. After fearlessly combatting cancer in her youth, she lived to be a grandmother. 

Cancer patients are nearly always classified as brave warriors. I didn’t really give much thought to this language until I became a cancer patient myself.

When I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer, I was not brave at all. I was terrified out of my mind. My brain kept envisioning my slow, painful death, my toddler without his mommy, my husband without his wife. My stomach clenched; I couldn’t eat. My heart raced; I couldn’t sleep. And I spent the entire first weekend crying.

When the doctor sent me for follow-up tests, I was not brave at all. I was petrified. As a scientist, I knew that these screens would determine whether the cancer had spread to my liver, lungs, or bones. I knew that a positive result in any one of these tests would mean an agonizing death by cancer. I knew too much.

When I had my lumpectomy, I was not brave at all. I was afraid because I knew my chances of surviving would greatly decrease if the surgeon found too many cancer-containing lymph nodes.

When I underwent chemotherapy, I was not brave at all. I was too sick to be anything. My weight plummeted. I slept 23 hours per day. I didn’t have the energy for my 18-month-old son, my heart.

When my hair fell out in clumps, as I knew it would, I was not brave at all. I was mortified yet resigned to my fate. I had cut my long hair really short first.  I still, more than seventeen years later, have my disembodied ponytail, the one thing I can’t let go of for some reason.

During radiation therapy, the price for keeping my breast, I was not brave at all. I was drained. The hardest part for me physically was already over. But emotionally, seeing too many beautiful bald kids in the waiting room every day for six weeks broke my heart.

When I was prescribed Tamoxifen for five years, I was not brave at all. I was resentful. I hated those pills, that daily reminder of my cancer, and I wanted another baby, but blocking estrogen meant delaying that possibility.

My treatment was not a fight. My experience was not a battle. My diagnosis simply resulted in a series of steps I needed to take in order to survive. I endured what I had to but I barely got out of bed for three months and that is hardly worthy of war-speak.

You could have called me many things during that time: terrified, petrified, afraid, mortified, resigned, sick, drained, resentful. Today, you can refer to me as a survivor. You can say I persevered. You can label me tenacious. You can even call me strong.

But please don’t call me the one thing I was not, am not.

Please, don’t call me brave.


This is yeah write’s NoMo writing challenge Day 2.

photo credit: Life’s a bitch ! via photopin (license)

33 Responses to “Please, Don’t Call Me Brave”

  1. RochelleNovember 2, 2015 at 3:14 pm #

    Real courage is walking forward even when your knees are knocking together from fear.
    In my opinion, you’re courageous.

    • StacieNovember 2, 2015 at 3:47 pm #

      Aw, thanks. It really never felt courageous at all.

  2. Fleet SparrowNovember 2, 2015 at 4:49 pm #

    Reading this reminded me of when my dad had cancer. It seems like there’s no space for cancer survivors to talk about *not* feeling the societal feel-good image of “being brave”, as though you’re not allowed to feel any other way because “you made it”.

    Thank you for sharing this. <33

    • StacieNovember 2, 2015 at 5:56 pm #

      I think most of us don’t feel brave during something like this. It just seems like an odd word choice. You do what you have to do.

  3. EllenNovember 2, 2015 at 4:59 pm #

    As one who has not lived through the horrible experience that you have, I completely respect your right to refer to that however you want. I get it. Brave schmave. Thanks for surviving!!

    • StacieNovember 2, 2015 at 5:54 pm #

      I did everything I could and I am so happy to still be here. It upsets me that not everyone has such good fortune.

  4. Andrea@WellnessNotesNovember 2, 2015 at 6:04 pm #

    A very powerful post. I never thought about the language we use to describe those battling cancer. But then again, I did deal with it from the outside when loved ones were dealing with it.

    When my dad went through extensive cancer treatment four years ago, he tried so hard to be brave. I always tried to remind him to allow himself to feel all the other emotions you mentioned above.

    And when my sister went through breast cancer treatment two years ago, we also talked every day on the phone for four months. I always tried to reassure her that it was okay to have a bad day, a bad week. She didn’t have to be brave.

    • StacieNovember 2, 2015 at 7:49 pm #

      I’m sorry you had to watch loved ones go through this. I think it many ways, it’s harder than being the one with cancer. Sounds like you are an amazing caretaker.

  5. Michelle LongoNovember 2, 2015 at 6:46 pm #

    I love you.

    (That was my original comment but wordpress deemed it too short and made me say more things. <– This is the thing that I said to make more words.)

    • StacieNovember 2, 2015 at 7:47 pm #

      I love you too! I am not sure why it does that since it let’s me give short answers as replies.

  6. CathyNovember 2, 2015 at 7:13 pm #

    I’ve been through a lot of this and agree with you wholeheartedly. Brave is an odd word for it. Really, what’s the alternative? Refusing treatment? The only braveness I felt is in not letting my family members (other than my husband/rock) know how completely and utterly lost and scared I felt and in putting on my normal face for my kids so they wouldn’t be traumatized by their mom having cancer. I hope all is well with you now.

    • StacieNovember 2, 2015 at 7:51 pm #

      Yes, that is brave, putting on your normal face. I didn’t really have to do that because my son was too young to understand what was happening. I am well, thank you. I hope you are too!

  7. JanelleNovember 2, 2015 at 8:25 pm #

    Thank you for sharing so honestly. The problem with saying that a group of people is “brave” is, if you become a part of that group and aren’t, you feel somehow broken. It’s so important to hear the truth!

    • StacieNovember 3, 2015 at 7:09 am #

      Yes. it’s hard to feel brave, at least for me, when I’m just doing what needs to be done. It’s one thing to make a choice to do something hard if you don’t have to – that’s brave. I didn’t really have a choice.

  8. Beth HarkinsNovember 2, 2015 at 10:33 pm #

    Powerful & honest testimony, Stacie. We always have to be careful attributing feelings to people, because we risk being deaf to what they really feel, or even want to feel.

    • StacieNovember 3, 2015 at 7:10 am #

      At this point, I’m actually pretty objective about it. It’s just every time I read something like that, it strikes a chord since for me nothing could have been farther from the truth!

  9. LisaNovember 2, 2015 at 11:49 pm #

    It’s brave to write about not feeling brave. Because I think a lot of survivors allow themselves to be called brave in hindsight, when they didn’t feel brave at all. Really compellingly written.

    • StacieNovember 3, 2015 at 7:13 am #

      Thanks Lisa! It’s ok to me if others want to feel brave, especially if that’s really how they felt. All I know is that it wasn’t that way for me at all!

  10. RaNovember 3, 2015 at 3:27 am #

    It doesn’t matter if you were brave or not, you were (are) brilliant. <3

    • StacieNovember 3, 2015 at 7:14 am #

      Awww, Rara. I’m actually totally ok with not being brave.

  11. Samantha Brinn MerelNovember 3, 2015 at 9:25 am #

    This is honest and raw and really beautiful. And I agree with what Rochelle said. Courage is moving forward when every fiber of your being wants to curl up into a ball and cry.

    • StacieNovember 3, 2015 at 5:24 pm #

      It really doesn’t feel that way though!

  12. Abby BoidNovember 3, 2015 at 2:26 pm #

    The choice of words people use to describe us is so important isn’t it? especially when it doesn’t quite ring true with how we would describe ourselves. It’s still always interesting to hear how others perceive us, but nice to know they will listen if we say ‘hmmm – that’s not quite who I am’. ‘Survivor’ and ‘strong’ are what I will go with . thanks for this post – lots of food for thought.

    • StacieNovember 3, 2015 at 5:24 pm #

      Thanks for the nice comment, Abby. Glad you’re doing the NoMo challenge too!

  13. Renée CamusNovember 3, 2015 at 7:13 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this, Stacie. Powerful and beautifully written.
    I cannot imagine what you went through (though I lost a dear friend to cancer last year), but I think that the choice, such as it is, might have been to give up and let the disease take over, rather than taking the steps necessary to defeat it. Giving up is obviously not a good choice, but it is still an option. So I think that’s where the bravery comes in. At least to those of us who couldn’t possibly understand because we haven’t been in your shoes.
    I hope that makes sense. I mean it in the best possible way.

    • StacieNovember 3, 2015 at 8:29 pm #

      I get what you mean. But, if you want to live, which nearly everyone does, there is no choice. Fundamentally people get that. But it’s really hard to explain unless you’ve been there yourself or with someone close. Of course, I’m only talking about how it felt to me. Others could be different.

  14. Nancy LowellNovember 4, 2015 at 12:18 pm #

    Having just dealt with a cancer diagnosis “the good kind” I have had similar thoughts, though what I have gone through (at this point) has been relatively easy. Yet that word – Cancer- is like a brand that we will carry forever, no matter what else happens. You are brave, living in fear is true bravery.

    • StacieNovember 4, 2015 at 3:59 pm #

      I am glad you had “the good kind,” although I’d not wish any of it on anyone. And thank you but I still would say I was not brave, just doing what I had to.

  15. MegNovember 5, 2015 at 12:46 am #

    Wow. This is so poignantly written. Sometimes I think we diminish the long slog to survival by talking about it as bravery. It kinda lets us step away from really empathizing with cancer patients and being present with them. Thanks so much for sharing this, Stacie. I love you and am grateful for your tenacity, persistence, and survival instincts.

  16. CathyNovember 5, 2015 at 7:05 am #

    What a powerful piece, Stacie! So raw and honest. I think you are courageous because of your fear. You faced the fear and did it anyhow and that’s courageous in my books. My mom had breast cancer twice and recovered and is still going strong at 83. I’ve had friends with the disease and they recovered, too. So good to hear that the recovery rates are constantly improving and it’s not a death sentence as much as it once was. Bravo to you!

  17. BeerayNovember 5, 2015 at 10:03 am #

    I loved your honesty. It is so true, being brave is the hardest thing to do.

  18. amberNovember 5, 2015 at 6:14 pm #

    Wow. I love how you wrote this! It really says so much! I had a lumpectomy a few years back too. Not fun. Glad it is behind me now.

  19. VinithaNovember 9, 2015 at 7:09 am #

    I have a friend who had been through this and she told me the same, not in these many words, though. Hugs.

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