“You’re so brave“, “You’re the bravest person I know” are a couple of phrases I hear, or really any cancer patient hears more often than not. We often get called a superhero for what we go through, as if it were a choice to go against cancer.

I’m going to tell you a little secret. I sure as heck don’t feel brave, or remotely like a superhero, unless you count my highly sensitive sense of smell from chemotherapy a super power. Those compliments make almost every single cancer patient I know, uncomfortable. I realize that it is meant as a compliment and there is absolutely no malice behind it, but, nonetheless, it is hard to hear.

When I picture bravery, I picture our men and women who have fought in wars, or the woman who fought off a would be attacker when she was out for a run. I never felt like going through mesothelioma made me brave. You see, being diagnosed with cancer makes your world stop, and then you have to rely on the directions of your medical team to figure out what to do to survive.

Heather Von St. James

Photo Credit: Heather. Brigham & Womens Hospital, Boston, 2006

Many times cancer treatment is highly invasive, surgery to remove body parts to halt the cancer, taking what is basically poison to kill off cancer cells, putting your body through basic hell to hopefully prevent the cancer from returning. It isn’t that we face these challenges with the bravado of a superhero, we do it to live, to spend more time with our loved ones. I don’t know how much being brave plays into it, other than the desire to beat the cancer.

I asked a few of my friends in the cancer community if they felt the same way I did about it. One person, a leukemia patient, said that when people told her she was so brave, that she almost felt like she HAD to beat cancer at all costs to not let them down. Another lymphoma survivor bristled at any words associating his cancer with a war, words like ‘warrior’, ‘fighter’ and ‘battle’ made him crazy. He said he never felt like any of those things, because this was something that he didn’t choose, it was thrust upon him.

Heather Von St. James

Photo Credit: Heather

Maybe the real reason for me is that I felt like going through cancer treatment is just what you do when you’re diagnosed with cancer. You do the surgery, you take the chemotherapy and radiation in hopes of beating the cancer. I never felt brave when the chemo made me so sick I had to sleep on the bathroom floor or when the radiation made me so weak and tired that taking care of my one-year old daughter was almost more than I could handle.

I think anyone, when faced with cancer will do anything in their power to live and I guess that is a pretty brave thing to do.

Perhaps, we as cancer patients need to take the compliments for what they mean, the admiration of our friends and family for going up against incredible odds. That it is indeed brave to face death, and it is a superhero quality to smell any fragrance from 50 feet away.

After all, being brave is a good thing right? In the end, superheroes usually beat the bad guy, right?

Pardon me while I go put on my Wonder Woman t-shirt and face the day as a cancer warrior, because yes,

I am brave,

we all are.


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One Comment

  1. Avatar
    Chung Y. Hsu, MD, PhD / August 30, 2017 at 7:58 pm /Reply

    Your positive attitude to fight against cancer may play a big role for you to win the war against cancer. Please refer to Dr. Bernie Siegel’s book “Love, Medicine and Miracle” to find out how powerful your positive mindset can beat cancer.

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