The first time I survived cancer I noticed that a large number of people told me I was brave. As I was actually pathologically anxious, this was a little disconcerting, as it made me feel as if people were not paying attention. (I know, being brave often means making tough choices despite fear–but all I chose was to do exactly what my doctor told me to, because I was scared of dying, so that does not count as exceptionally brave.) The best I can say for myself was that I was not afraid to ask for prayer or help, but as I have pretty much no innate sense of medical privacy and I really needed help, this too was much more survival instinct than courage.
Eventually I gave up on trying to convince anyone that I was not brave or noble. If you have cancer and do not happen to be brave and noble, I recommend not arguing with people about this. Yes, it’s annoying that people are misperceiving you, but there are way worse labels you could get stuck with. Besides, there is nothing you can do about it—if you spat in someone’s eye, they would probably interpret that as a brave and noble triumph of the human spirit over the dry mouth that comes with chemo.
Basically, when people say “you’re so brave,” here’s what they mean:
“Our society has focused so much on separating us from any familiarity with death—by worshipping youth, by walling off death behind hospital doors, by displaying dead people at funerals only in an embalmed and painted state—that I not only fear death, but also have no experience thinking about it. People in previous centuries hoped to see death coming days or weeks in advance so as to have time to compose their souls to meet their Maker, but I hope to die instantly in my sleep so that I’ll never have to think about death even for a minute. Therefore, the fact that you may be thinking about death makes me regard you as someone somehow separate from and more powerful than me.”
“Consumer society encourages me not to think about God, the sacred, or anything more transcendent than romantic love (which is the most transcendent thing that can still be used to sell a car or a bottle of soda). Death reminds me of the transcendent idea of the afterlife, so when I personally encounter someone who might encounter death, particularly at an earlier age than expected, I see that person as having a numinous aura around her, which I vaguely interpret as nobility and courage.”
“I feel empathy for your pain and want to say something encouraging, and I’m either not religious or I’m afraid that if I tell you God is with you I’ll be pushing something on you which you might disagree with. Our society believes in selves far more than it believes in God, so I will offer your self words of praise, even though they might not be remotely accurate.”
There you have it: it’s not about you. It’s just something people feel compelled to say. Ignore it and move on.
Besides, if my experience is any indication, eventually surviving cancer may make you somewhat more brave (not sure about the noble).
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I was recently diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic lymphoma and I’m undergoing chemotherapy. People constantly tell me how brave I am and I just say “thanks.” What I really want to say is “I’m not brave. I am just doing what I have to do to survive.”