Friday, May 24, 2013

On being brave

Courage, they say, isn't the absence of fear. It's being scared to death but doing it anyway.

Those of us engaged in a fight for our lives against that right bastard of a Freeloader, AKA carcinoma, are frequently praised for our bravery. I know that I greet such statements with a puzzled expression. I don't feel brave signing up for the amputation of a breast, or five months of poisoning, or five weeks of radioactive fallout.

I just feel that there isn't a choice.

No, wait. There's always a choice, as my therapist Rhonda used to say to me over and over when I was chickening out of ending yet another bad relationship.

The choice is to do it, or almost certainly die. And to choose the lesser evil, no matter how uncomfortable or hideously life-changing, isn't brave. It's just smart.

So let me rephrase that: I just feel that there isn't another rational choice.


It would be nice if there was another option. But you can't just stand on the sidelines and refuse to engage with cancer, as you might choose to do in situations where courage was required.

I'm thinking of my father, standing in a terribly vulnerable position giving covering fire to save the lives of his battalion in WWII.

I'm thinking of the firefighters climbing the stairs of the Twin Towers as they burned above them.

I'm thinking of that amazing Londoner, Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, who stood talking to a British soldier's armed murderers until the police turned up.

That's brave. That's genuine courage. It's highlighted by the contrast with less brave individuals' reactions, of course, as the photographic coverage of the London scene attests. Just look at the other people standing around, snapping the scene on their mobile phones but refusing to engage because it's dangerous.

That's cowardice, and that's a choice they made.

Cowardice is not part of an either/or choice when you have cancer. You either face the hideous treatment, or you face death.

Both are terrifying. Cancer makes cowards of us all.


Naturally, you can manufacture a third option- yep, you can delude yourself for quite some time if you want. You can believe there's some other way to beat cancer that won't be as unpleasant, but it doesn't make it true. Eventually, unless you have exceptional luck, option two stares you in the face and you fall into the pit of terror; you realise you chose death without knowing it.

I'm not into self-delusion. Please don't give me that 'miracle cure through natural remedies and positive thinking' crap. Some people- a very, very few- will spontaneously recover from cancer for no apparent reason, whether they've chosen course 1 or course 2. But until you have research-backed proof that something actually works as a cure and your 'miracle cure' isn't down to blind chance (or some avaricious charlatan's lies), you can stuff that one right up your jumper- and not down my throat.


So what do we do about the terror, if we can't delude ourselves? We can't just avoid it and cower in a corner till it goes away. It's not going away.

I think the answer to this has come clear to me as I consider what on earth is happening in my mind when I lie alone under the Kraken face of the x-ray machine at radiotherapy. There I am, paralysed into total stillness by an act of personal will and somehow achieving a meditative trance state- when any sane and rational person, knowing they were about to be shot full of potentially lethal radiation, would spring off the gurney and run screaming from the room.

(Don't think I haven't considered that option.)

What the hell is that about?

I've decided it comes down to making a choice again- not between courage and cowardice, but between fight and surrender. Those are our primary choices if we want to survive, and both require a high level of mind control. But it takes far more control to surrender, and it takes wisdom to know when to do so.

To choose a mastectomy was a choice to fight. The choice was easy. I chose to fight the Freeloader rather than to die.

To lie there in the theatre anteroom in my hospital gown, calmly accepting the anaesthetic whilst knowing that to do so meant I was committed to losing my breast and totally at the mercy of the surgeon's and anaesthetist's skills? That was a choice to surrender, and it was far more difficult. It required extreme mind control.

In the same way, choosing whether or not to have chemotherapy and which course to accept- four and a half months of extreme hell, or six months of slightly lesser hell- was easy. Fight, or die? Get it over with quickly and hit it hard, or draw it out and maybe let something nasty survive in me? No competition. That decision, like the decision to have the mastectomy, was made in a moment.

Turning up for each chemo session, though- and not dwelling on the thought of it and the pain and discomfort to come, until I sent myself mad- that required surrender.

I slipped sometimes on that one. Truly, chemo is horrible. They do kind of tell you that, but you don't really realise how horrible until you're stuck there for months. I had to talk myself into surrendering, often, instead of beating myself up about how rotten I felt.

Accept not being able to do anything at all. 

Try to rest.

Ask for help.

I failed, often. I wailed, often. But bailed? Never. That would be choosing death.

Brave didn't come into it.


And then there's the radiotherapy.

The Kraken is an image of terror from my childhood. I'd read John Wyndham's The Chrysalids, one of my all-time favourite books, and also of course The Day of the Triffids; both had scary moments aplenty, but nothing I couldn't handle at 8 years or so.

And then I picked up The Kraken Wakes, and lost my sleep for days. The concept of going so deep beneath the surface of the sea in a diving bell was bad enough (I'd nearly drowned when I was 6), but the cries of horror from the divers... the unseen monster only guessed at on the shore...the severed line... I was spooked for a lifetime, well before 3 in the morning when the Kraken emerged from the water to kill whole communities and I knew I couldn't put the book down till it was over.

The radiotherapy machine really does look like the front of a diving bell. There I am, staring into its blank face for half an hour, every day, for five eternal weeks.

I know that the Kraken can kill me. Sometimes, after all the talk about how hard it was to finalise The Plan, how tricky to get the angles right to avoid my heart, I get a shooting pain in my chest as I lie there. I know it's psychosomatic. At least, I think I know.

That's when I have to consciously engage my mind to surrender, and that's where I've discovered how powerful my mind can be. The only way for me to surrender, faced with that level of partly irrational fear, is to not be there at all. So off goes my mind into some other place, where absolutely none of this is happening.


Pretty amazing, isn't it?

But it's not brave. It's just that I have a very strong mind. If you were to praise me for my stubbornness, for my determination, for the power of my mind, I would accept the praise without question.

So let's not talk about courage- not while I'm fighting the Freeloader. Yes, I can be courageous- there's plenty of my father in me. I was brave to stand up to my boss one day many years ago, for example, when a corrupt act of hers to advance her own student threatened the career of another student. (Would you believe she'd reversed the two students' results on the official submission to the Board of Studies?)

I know what brave feels like. Brave is when you're absolutely wetting yourself with fear (in my case, of career-ending reprisals, not to mention the rabid expressions of fury I knew I would field from my ex-boss), but you choose to act anyway because it's the right thing to do.

Not the only rational thing to do. The right thing to do, when you have a choice to do nothing without harm to yourself.

So to be called brave for dealing with this cancer, in the only rational way I know, makes me feel like a fraud, because courage isn't what's required to deal with cancer. What's required is the ability to know when to fight, and when to surrender. What's required is the mental strength to surrender, when you really want to run away screaming.

Yes, I'm being strong-minded. But I'm not being brave.


  1. You are so right, people are often telling me I'm brave for what I've been through, for what I'm going through, for going to work etc. I don't feel a bit brave, but just making the right choices at the time. Keep up the strong mindedness! Cheers :)

    1. :) Thanks Viv... keep making the good choices!