The Anatomy of Courage
The following article is excerpted from Chapter
of Advanced Breast Cancer: A Guide to Living with Metastatic Disease, 2nd
Edition, by Musa Mayer, copyright 1998, published by O'Reilly & Associates,
Inc. For book orders/information, call (800) 998-9938. Permission is granted
to print and distribute this excerpt for noncommercial use as long as
the above source is included. The information in this article is
meant to educate and should not be used as an alternative for
professional medical care.
We would rather be ruined than changed;
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
W. H. Auden
Through their words and actions, the women and men who have animated the
pages of Advanced Breast Cancer have laid bare the anatomy of courage.
Courage implies, in Webster's definition, "The attitude of facing and
dealing with anything recognized as dangerous, difficult or painful, instead of
withdrawing from it."
These people have been able to summon the strength to turn toward
what is most frightening, rather than to turn away, as our culture of denial
encourages us to do. They have chosen to embrace the "full
catastrophe," as Zorba the Greek termed it.
In doing so, they have sought out new sources of meaning and joy, as their
lives unfolded moment by precious moment. They celebrated and they mourned. They
let go of illusions and revised their expectations. They held tight to those
they loved, forging real intimacy through honest expression, and they reached
out to help others. They weathered the physical and emotional distress of
treatments and disease progression with compassion for themselves, expressing
emotion yet not drowning in suffering. They informed themselves and sought out
the best of care, at times raging at the unfairness of the system and fighting
for their right to treatment. They made conscious choices and plans. They sought
transcendence and beauty in creativity--through poetry, music, art--and often
through the writing they did for this book. They sought a communion with the
natural world, sensing their own place in the flow of the seasons and in all of
life. They passionately pursued a connection with God or whatever spiritual
force they understood for themselves. From all these sources, and many more,
they kept on keeping on--reinventing the strength day by day to live fully for
the time that remains to them.
They are ordinary women and men just like yourself, possessed of no special
heroic capacity before illness came into their lives. Put simply: they rose to
the occasion. They did not accomplish this alone, without help. They learned,
often from other patients, to assert and inform themselves. They depended upon
the love and support of their families and friends. They relied on the skill and
compassion of their doctors and other care providers. With the help of their
spiritual communities, they sought comfort and meaning. By telling their
stories, and sharing their insights, it is their hope and my own that your own
journey will have been made less lonely and frightening.
It is they who should have the final words. First, Caren Buffum, responding
to a letter from a woman newly diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, who
questioned how she would ever be able to cope with this disease.
I want to encourage you to focus on each day you live rather than trying to
"know". I can't tell you how long it takes--I think it is more of a
gradual process--each day gets a little easier. I guess you will have to trust
those of us who have come through it--that's what we're here for, to tell you we
are on the same journey as you are and have just made it down the road a bit
further. We are like scouts, trotting our horses back to tell you what's on the
other side of the mountain. Of course, everyone's experience is different, but I
do believe we share similar stages or cycles in our process.
If you can't rest in your own lack of knowledge, at least know that we know that
it can happen, and no doubt will happen for you in time. Meanwhile, do your best
to learn what is most important in life for you right now. How do you want to
spend your time? What haven't you done yet that you have dreamed of doing? Whom
do you want to get to know better but haven't taken the time? What places bring
you the most peace? What time of day are you most relaxed? What memories do you
enjoy recollecting? Since you can't know your future and a lot of other things
about the disease, take the time to know yourself better and find what gives you
greatest meaning and deepest joy. Then focus on those things. You might try
keeping a journal of what you learn and feel, if you don't already. Don't try to
do it all at once--a little every day.
At the closing of the year, Sandra Yandell offered these reflections:
This morning I was thinking about the Solstice--the shortest day and longest
night--and I realized that's what my life feels like. Then I started thinking
about my seventeenth winter, when temperatures at Christmas time were in the
50's and 60's, and I was in love with the younger version of the man I love now.
And I can't stop crying, because I feel distilled into a moment in time--a
bright, warm, too-short winter's day. I remember walking around the lake in the
park with him, young love passionate and unsure of myself. One of those intense
days that you don't want to end. That day went on into evening, but this
"winter's day" ends with the light. Unseasonably warm and too brief,
too few hours left of light. My first love becomes my last love in another
There is another light waiting in that darkness, an unending season of joy. It
would be so easy, sometimes, to slip away, to let go into that place where there
will be no pain, and I will no longer need this body that has become my prison.
I remember that seventeen-year-old body almost seventeen years ago, so
self-consciously aware of myself in the presence of a young man I adored. Some
days I am again self-conscious, this time of the ravages of this disease on a
once beautiful body.
Today was a bright, warm December day. My love's kiss tastes the same as it did
then, and though I live in my winter, it too is bright and warm. And I am not
ready to watch the sun set on this winter's day.
One of the definitions of survival is "that which endures." I think I
fit in this category. I've been battling this enemy for five years, through
numerous surgeries, lots of radiation and now my second regimen of chemo.
Sometimes I feel like a soldier who keeps getting shot, then patched up and sent
back on the front lines. I know it's hard to hear stories like mine--it could
have been, might have been, one day may be you. I pray that it will never be so,
for anyone, but the fact remains that, although I am not disease-free, I am
alive, and I will do whatever I can to keep going. In spite of the fact that I
have serious bone mets, and my prognosis is not very pretty, still I can say I
am a survivor, I have endured, I will continue as long as there is
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