Bravery Versus Courage When Faced with Cancer

When my daughter first started cancer treatment, she was brave, but after she understood how difficult it was, she was courageous in continuing.

When I started to share information publicly about my daughter Adrienne’s cancer treatment experience, one of the words used a lot in responses to describe her was “brave.” I didn’t know why, but that word raised my hackles every time.

“She isn’t brave, she just doesn’t have a choice,” I thought.

She was very young with a very aggressive cancer (18% tumor growth in a few weeks) and if she wanted to live, her best option was to follow the treatment regimen recommended by her oncology team.

Merriam-Webster defines bravery as “the quality or state of having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear or difficulty.”

It's true, Adrienne did demonstrate bravery many times. She was brave when she was told that she had cancer. She was brave when she learned about the multiple side effects chemotherapy might have on her body, some of them permanent. She was brave when she was informed that because of questionable margins an additional surgery was going to happen. She was brave when she heard on the phone that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. She was brave when despite all the knowledge she had she walked into the oncology department and watched them hook her up to an IV and saw a nurse in the equivalent of a hazmat suit slowly infuse the “Red Devil” into her port.

Adrienne was brave because there was so much danger she was facing. She was so afraid, yet she still put one foot in front of the other and kept going.

But after that first treatment, after she experienced the effects that she had been given knowledge of and bravely faced anyway, what she demonstrated when she walked back into that ward every week was not bravery.

It was courage because she knew what was in store for her.

Merriam-Webster’s definition of courage is the “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere and withstand danger, fear or difficulty.”

The most important word in that definition for me is "persevere." Regardless of how the chemotherapy made my child feel, she kept going back. When nausea was her constant companion, and she couldn’t tolerate smelling anything, she persevered. When her head was exploding from pain, and she would tearfully ask me to gently rub it, she persevered. When she was struggling to move off the couch to go to the bathroom because her body was screaming at her, she persevered.

I have never seen such courage in my life.

When people who have gone through cancer treatment say you can’t know until you know, it’s important to respect that. Cancer and cancer treatments do not often offer many choices. After watching what Adrienne experienced, I truly get it when people who have recurrences and are looking at quality of life over quantity make the decision to forgo treatment. Without a doubt, if people choose to reengage with treatment a second time, they are not going in wearing rose-colored glasses; courage is their guiding force.

Because like Adrienne, they know. And if she has a recurrence and at some point, she makes the decision to stop treatment, I hope I can demonstrate as much courage as she did and honor that choice.

But my baby will always be my baby so…

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