A profile of courage

Cowardly Lion:
Courage. What makes a King out of a slave? Courage.
What makes the flag on the mast to wave? Courage.
What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist or the dusky dusk?
What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage.
What makes the Sphinx the 7th Wonder? Courage.
What makes the dawn come up like THUNDER?! Courage.
What makes the Hottentot so hot?
What puts the “ape” in ape-ricot?
Whatta they got that I ain’t got?
 Dorothy & Friends:  Courage!
Cowardly Lion: You can say that again.

I’ve never thought of myself as a brave person. I like to think that I would respond honorably in the heat of battle, whatever that battle might be, but I’ve never been in a war, I’ve never had to rush into a burning building to rescue a child, and I’ve never had to jump in to rescue anyone from drowning, just to list three possible scenarios where a person’s courage might be tested. I have no need to be a hero, but I think I would do what’s needed when it’s needed. Frankly, I hope that I am never tested in any of those ways.

Of course, there are many other, less dramatic ways that a person’s courage can be tested. One of them is dealing with everything that goes with getting a diagnosis of stage IV cancer. My courage has been tested. I thought I knew how I would react, but I surprised myself.

I thought that I would eschew treatment and let nature take its course. After all, my past experience hadn’t provided me with any models that would encourage me to seek treatment. The people that I knew who fought cancer with treatment had not fared very well. The treatment for them was chemo, and the chemo made them suffer, and then they died anyway. That’s how it is with cancer sometimes. Sometimes the chemo works and people get better, but those examples were outside my experience. To me, advanced cancer was a death sentence and treatment (chemo) was a death sentence with extra suffering thrown in for good measure. Another example that I have to guide me is the way that my mother dealt with her own cancer diagnosis. She was in her 80’s when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She chose not have treatment or surgery. She lived another six or seven years before the cancer took her life, and I’m sure she suffered, especially toward the end, but she never let anyone know it except at the very end. This is not the only reason why I think my mother was the toughest, most courageous person I’ve ever known, but it’s a good example, and her fortitude is a model for my own thinking and behavior. I often wish that I was even half as tough as her.

So, I thought that I would decline treatment, but then the doctors told me about immunotherapy and how it wasn’t as toxic as chemo because it works with the body’s own immune system and that it had shown promise in extending lives with quality. Whether that is true or not about it not being as toxic as chemo I’ll leave for another post. Maybe. Anyway, when I heard that I might be getting a stay of execution, I jumped at it like the condemned man awaiting the Governor’s phone call. Is that courage, or lack thereof? I don’t know. I know that I’m not ready to die (who is) and that I have unfinished business in this earthly realm before I shuffle off to Buffalo (or wherever), and that I have people who care for me including an amazing wife who loves me and does not deserve to wear widow’s weeds now. All of these things are in my mind, so when I have to deal with setbacks like getting diabetes and dealing with that, I know there are reasons, good reasons, for not throwing in the towel just yet. To me, that’s not courage, although it’s not not courage either. It’s just doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done.

When I hear people say how brave I must be, I don’t argue with them. I know that it’s not just about me because there are a lot of other people, people with advanced melanoma, and people struggling against other diseases, for whom the word courage applies. It’s just that courage doesn’t always manifest itself they way it is usually portrayed in movies (except maybe in The Wizard of Oz). Often it manifests itself in the simple act of choosing life and moving forward from there.

Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each new thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.

Eleanor Roosevelt

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