Sunday, 24 April 2016

140. Brave battles

Cancer has been in the news far too often in 2016. One famous person after another seems to have died of it, starting with David Bowie at the beginning of January. Victoria Wood has just been added to the sorry list.

It's not just dying of cancer that's the common thread here.

All of these famous people fought brave battles.

At least that's how their deaths were announced by their families or publicists. They died after...

"...a courageous 18 month battle with cancer" (David Bowie)
"...a short but brave battle with cancer" (Terry Wogan)
"...a short but brave battle with cancer"  (Victoria Wood) (well spotted: exactly the same wording)

Even if the initial announcement is devoid of any warfare or bravery, the newspapers quickly provide the missing words. Alan Rickman's family simply stated that he "has died from cancer at the age of 69." Media reports announced "his secret battle with cancer", "he bravely battled cancer".

All this makes me wonder what the alternative is. A cowardly surrender?

What, exactly, does a brave battle with cancer look like? As far as I can imagine, being confronted with terminal cancer is like this.

  1. You get the cancer diagnosis. You are probably going to die of it.
  2. You are shocked and terrified.
  3. You get to the end of each day and wake up at the start of each new one. Somehow. Simply because there is no alternative.
You cope in the only way you can. Perhaps you try not to think about it. Carry on as if nothing has happened. Don't even tell anyone, except perhaps your nearest and dearest - certainly not the Daily Mirror. (Is that brave? It'll certainly be a batlle.)

Or you focus on it. Talk about it. You may even inflict a cancer blog on the unsuspecting public. (Is that brave? No less of a battle, probably.)

I'm not sure what "a battle with cancer" is, anyway. Throwing as much treatment at it as your body can take? (Fight until the bitter end! Die fighting! Even if the enemy has machine guns and nuclear bombs, and all you have is a catapult.)

How about accepting that nothing can be done to ward off death, or deciding that the extra months you might live if you have more chemotherapy are not worth the misery of side effects? No less of a battle, I'd say, if you're into that kind of vocabulary.

I'm just trying to visualise what a cowardly cancer patient looks like. 

So I looked it up in the dictionary.

BRAVE: to face and endure pain or difficulty without showing fear
COWARD: a person who is not brave and who is too eager to avoid danger, difficulty or pain 

Now, of course I never knew David Bowie or Victoria Wood or any of the other famous people who have died of cancer in recent months, but I think I can be pretty sure about one thing: all of them must have felt fear. (See above, number 2: "shocked and frightened".) I think I can also put a safe bet on the proposition that each one of them was rather eager to avoid danger, difficulty and pain.

Because who could face suffering and death without feeling any fear? Even Jesus wasn't immune to a bit of courage failure (Take this cup away from me; Father, why have You forsaken me?), but you wouldn't call Him a coward, exactly.

In fact, I have just read that of all the concerns that cancer patients have, WORRY, FEAR and ANXIETY comes top. Well above PAIN (which comes fourth).

The crucial words in the definitions of bravery and courage are without showing fear.

So perhaps this is what cowardly cancer patients looks like:

  • they cry a lot
  • they lie awake at night
  • they find themselves physically shaking

Looking back at my own cancer year, I can tick all those boxes. Coward? Ah, no, because I usually DIDN'T SHOW IT. (Not until I started blogging about it. And when I did own up to a spot of weeping, you were all so alarmed that from then on, I tried to keep things a bit more cheerful, at least in cyberspace.)

Being with people in distress or despair or terror is terribly, terribly difficult. It is unbearable, in fact. They make you realise that there is nothing you can do. (All you can do is "be there", and that is painfully difficult.) They also make you think about your own fears and pain.

No wonder we'd rather have brave cancer patients who don't share their worries with us. If I were a celebrity, I bet I wouldn't have shared it either. Having cancer is bad enough without being cheered on to fight battles with it. As if you had the energy to be a David in the face of a cancerous Goliath.

The dictionary definitions lead me to the following conclusion:

A true coward is someone who is eager (determined, in fact) to avoid cancer altogether. 

Well, I've had enough of that particular "battle", so from henceforth,  you can count me in with the cowards. Either that, or stop calling us all "brave".

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