Defining Bravery

You are so brave. I’ve realized over the years that those four words grate on the nerves of many cancer patients. I’m always up for a compliment, so I wasn’t quite sure why others were bothered by the phrase. Their explanation: “I’m not brave, I’m just trying to survive.” So I wondered…maybe I’m not brave.

Everyone who goes through treatment for an illness undergoes hardships and challenges. Does the mere fact that they do it make them brave? Many people, such as Dana Jennings and Luke Allnutt, would say “no.” I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think that perhaps “no” is the answer brave people will give.

“Bravery” is not a term solely reserved for firefighters, police officers, soldiers and individuals like the men in this incredible story of rescue, who knowingly place themselves in harm’s way. Merriam-Webster defines “brave” as “having or showing courage”. Courage, in turn, is defined as the “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty”.

There are many levels of bravery in this situation. It is brave to acknowledge that something is wrong. It is brave to visit your doctor and voice your worries. It is brave to decide whether or not you will have treatment. It is brave to keep one foot ahead of the other, and to find joy when you feel tired, scared and frail. It is brave to show your fears. Kay Kerbyson, PhD, president of Ovarian Cancer Together!, wrote a wonderful piece describing how she went from cringing when someone called her brave to embracing the compliment: “Are Cancer Patients Really Brave?”

As I wrote in The Language of a Survivor, language is so very complicated and personal. I believe each patient is responsible for educating family, friends and acquaintances about the vocabulary they prefer when addressing their illness, but they should also be respectful of the meaning these words have to the person speaking them. The stress placed upon caregivers and other friends and family is overshadowed by the challenges the patient is facing, and it is important to value their feelings and emotions as well.

I will continue to be proud when someone refers to me as brave, and I hope I will always have the ability to summon that strength when faced with life’s worries and heartbreaks.

“The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.”


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