Strong and Brave? Or Tired and Scared?

People undergoing cancer treatments or prophylactic surgeries due to genetic mutations are often referred to as warriors, fighting a battle. They are told how brave or strong they are, or that they are an inspiration. We asked a group of people how they felt about these comments. The majority would rather this language not be used. For some it made them uncomfortable, and for many, they felt it made it worse. But others said it boosted them and made them feel validated.

There’s no right way to respond to something, and no individual opinion here invalidates any others. Here are some of the things we were told by people who have been called brave, strong, or an inspiration.

I was especially uncomfortable when my doctors and surgeons would say it.

I would much rather someone tell me how hard or must be.

Being brave to me is going into a burning building to rescue people.

I hate the whole warrior and battle thing. I’m not a warrior. I’m scared and I don’t have a choice. I’m a warrior because I pick myself up off the floor and drag myself to treatment? Nah, I’m just trying not to die.

It silently irritates me when someone says how strong I am. I know they are only trying to be nice and that they don’t know what else to say but I secretly hate it.

People tell me what a strong person I am. What are you supposed to do with a breast cancer diagnosis – roll up in the fetal position and cry? I’ve been let down by people who for whatever reason have stepped back and watch me be “strong” from a distance because it’s difficult for them to watch me go through this. Not sure when MY cancer diagnosis was about them, but okay!  Warrior in pink? I think not. Just a girl who wants to live and hold my future grand babies and see the Grand Canyon.

I also dislike the battle metaphor. Why would I fight? I am trusting the health team surrounding me. The only battle is between the drugs and the cancer inside me.

As for being told I’m strong, when I’m told that I usually tell the person that I have no choice. What am I going to do, resist and make things worse for myself? No. Sometimes though, a person who knows me well and can back it up with knowledge of me. Then it is okay. Ish.

I am still trying to find my “strong.” I am not sure what it means when I’m told that I am strong by friends. I’m scared. I cry. I’m sad. I’m angry. I go to my appointments shaking, crying, and scared. I’ve seen family and friends that said they fought and were strong; yet, shortly after remission recurrence happened and they were gone shortly after. Did they stop fighting? Were they no longer strong? I feel that I have no control over this. No more than having the control to not be diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer. My problem is…. that I feel I have lost all control after my diagnosis.

I hate the whole “battling cancer” and “lost their fight with cancer” as if the person could win. Like if the person fought harder they wouldn’t have died.

I also strongly dislike “strong, brave, inspirational, etc.” – I won’t say I hate it because I think it’s meant to genuinely be a compliment. Additionally, I hated when people would tell me how good I looked bald (or how good I look now with very short hair) and that they could never pull off that style. *it isn’t style, it’s life, and I’m just going with it* but again, I know it’s meant to be a compliment so I try not to be too sensitive about it.

You know who I think is strong? My husband. Me? I’ve been scared, terrified, afraid I’ll die now or sooner than I had hoped. I’m afraid of the pain. I’ve been terrified of the surgery, the chemo, the radiation…. I’ve read so many depressing and sad stories of women whose husbands leave or check out or shut down, who don’t bother, who don’t even show up for any of it. My own oncologist said as my husband and I sat in her office holding hands that she appreciated him, that she sees too often husbands sitting in a corner with their cell phones…. So but for me? What are my choices? I can say no to treatment, which would be foolish and a death sentence, or I can just do it, which isn’t the same as being strong or brave or a warrior…. The other option is dying and I don’t want to die, thanks very much. It’s not the same as picking up a weapon and facing an enemy of your own volition. Or not quite. Because as somebody I can’t even recall right now said, even warriors don’t imagine they’re being warriors in the moment. They’re mostly just scared shitless but they do it anyway. Me? I submit to those who know best while at the same time learning as much as I can about the options. Does that make me a warrior? I don’t think so. I think it just makes me aware, scared, worried, and a whole lot hopeful.

Choice. When cancer came it left me with no choice, I have to fight, I need to win this for my life.  My family is counting on a win.  I’m not brave, I’m determined.  Cancer is a consuming fear, a daily struggle that has shaken foundations and brought the fighter out of me.  I want to live.  Cancer didn’t give me a choice it gave me a reason to fight.

For me I don’t feel strong, brave or inspiring. I just feel tired and scared.

I’m not strong. I’m not “fighting” anything. I don’t “got this”. All the cancer and breast cancer sayings drive me bananas!

I’m faced with a potentially life or death condition that I didn’t choose. It isn’t strength that gets me through each day, it’s a will to live. It doesn’t take strength to want to live, that’s the default human response. So I do everything possible to help my body to survive, to correct the defects, to ultimately thrive….for hopefully another 50 years. But that part isn’t up to me….only by God’s good grace, I wake up each day and lean on him in every way to get through each day.

I had someone tell me in regards to my cancer “it is good you got cancer because out of all the people I know, you are strong and can handle it.”  Wtf???  It came from a good place, but I still feel angry.  I feel like she was saying “glad it’s you and not me” or “glad it’s you and not someone else I know”.

I hope I do inspire others especially if it means they will get regular mammograms!! They caught my cancer early and I do feel strong. I have a choice of how to approach my cancer: cry and ask why me? Or flex my muscles and fight the most important fight of my life. I am strong and proud of it!! My new motto: Go big or go home!!

I feel determined! That may come across as strong. But it’s definitely DETERMINED, to get this cancer gone, determined to watch my sons graduate, marry, determined to someday have grandchildren. Determined to survive! To win. To beat cancer!! This is where strong comes in. I will never be offended by someone saying you are strong, you are a warrior, they mean well. They care. Warriors fight to win, so do cancer patients. So just because our battle is not with guns, it’s a battle nonetheless. So, I will fight, I will pray, I will win, I am determined!

I feel as though being called strong makes me feel like there is a standard I can’t live up to. I have to have moments to release my anxiety and just break down. Breaking down is needed to release those feelings. The most appropriate response to my cancer diagnosis was, “I am sorry you are going through this.” Hearing, “You are so strong” drove me crazy. Oddly enough, before my diagnosis I would have said the same thing to someone I knew had cancer.

The whole “strong” and “warrior” concept makes me feel like I am not allowed to exhibit weakness. It makes me feel like I have to have all of my weak moments alone because I’m expected to be a “warrior” to everyone else.

When people call me brave, and strong, and inspiring, it makes me feel validated. They are acknowledging how difficult the journey is and seeing me as a strong person for getting through it with a positive attitude, honesty, and grace. I didn’t feel like it set an expectation because I talked openly with people about how difficult the journey is.

I hear that word constantly and hate it. Everyone says “I know you will get through this because you are the strongest person I know”. It upsets me. I want to scream “I’ll get through this because I want to live.” People who aren’t going through this make you feel like you aren’t allowed to be sad, hurt, cry or even be angry. I hide all my emotions in private.

I think it’s nice when someone says those things. I am brave and strong. That doesn’t mean I don’t cry or I’m not scared but I am getting through this and I’m proud of myself. This has been the toughest thing I have ever been through but I’m doing it!

There is no right way to feel about how someone describes you as you deal with cancer. Many patients object to being called strong, but some appreciate the compliment. If you are a friend of a patient, the best thing you can do is listen to them. Ask them what’s bothering them, and ask what you can do to help. If you are a patient, it’s ok to communicate your feelings. If people are saying things that make you uncomfortable, it’s ok to tell them. Chances are you are talking to someone who cares about you and the last thing they want is to make you feel bad. Open communication on both sides can make the ordeal a little easier.