Since my prostate cancer diagnosis in 2010, my treatment in 2011, my 65th birthday last May, my retirement last June, and my upcoming death (no firm or projected date) I have been wondering what will be said about my demise when I’m gone. Hopefully somebody will say something, but what? I don’t mean to be morbid, but I’d like to have some input about that.
Describing my death
It will probably depend on how I die. I might drive off a winding mountain road in North Carolina and being Ron Nelson and not Bruce Willis, the tumbling descent would probably kill me. Or what if I just fell off a ladder and knocked my noggin on a rock? In either case there might be some reference to my tragic accident. Okay, that works for me.
When I was a single-digit kid I recall almost choking—the real kind: silent, scary suffocation—on a tiny bite of watermelon. What If a similar episode were to occur now, but without enough air in my tank to expel the tasty morsel across the room as I did then? Based on googling “choked to death” it seems choking inspires no adjective or judgment. I will have simply choked to death. Sad, but good enough.
What if I shot myself while attempting to bag an 8-point buck or a belligerent beaver? What if the rifle was somehow defective or a ricochet followed an unfortunate path? In this case the focus of conversation would probably not be me at all. More likely, the story would be added to the stack of stuff promoting tighter gun control. I don’t really relish becoming a posthumous political pawn, but I’d be gone and regardless of my personal views, that debate along with many other messy matters will be left to others. That’s one of the few benefits of death, so I’ll take it.
And what if I ultimately die of a prostate cancer recurrence or some other flavor of cancer? After whatever amount of time the available treatments buy me, what will be said then? We all know the likely answer:
Ron Nelson died after fighting a courageous battle with cancer.
Courageous? I’m really uncomfortable with that characterization, and here’s why.
Courage and choice
Not only do I not feel courageous, by definition I simply do not qualify. Wikipedia’s definition is as good as any:
The key word is choice. There was nothing voluntary about this—there was no sign-up sheet for cancer. After a brief but prudent period of biding my time (a.k.a., active surveillance) I did decide to treat it, but what was the alternative? If I die of cancer some may eventually refer to that period as part of my courageous battle with cancer, but please take note: I’m not brave or embattled. I’m just living my life such as it is, making necessary and sometimes difficult choices along the way.
The truly courageous
I particularly don’t (and won’t) deserve sharing the label of bravery with the many truly heroic men and women who chose an exceptionally dangerous, risky life to serve their country and mankind. Using the same adjective to describe me with respect to cancer is unfair to those genuinely courageous people I so deeply respect and appreciate.
I did not fight in a war to serve my country as did many of my courageous proton brothers and others. The draft spared me (my Vietnam lottery number was a safe 364) and enlistment did not seem like the right path for me. I do not fly F/A-18 Hornets over Middle Eastern countries for the U.S. Navy as does my courageous son-in-law. I did not graduate from the police academy to serve my community in the face of daily danger as did my brave nephew.
Cancer was an unwelcome intrusion upon my life, plain and simple.
The scale of courage
There was no enlistment for my so-called battle with cancer. It was just a card dealt to me. I’m not battling or brave, and saying otherwise when I’m dead won’t change the truth. I’m just living my life like you and everyone else with and without cancer.
I’m not battling or brave, and saying otherwise when I’m dead won’t change the truth. I’m just living my life …
In fact, so far I’ve had it pretty easy. I was diagnosed, treated, have no physical side effects worth mentioning, and can continue enjoying life. It doesn’t get much better than that.
So if my death is ultimately from cancer, please keep some perspective about my realistic ranking on the scale of relative courage. I have no illusions about this and prefer not to be rated undeservedly high. This is not an effort to be humble, just accurate. Let’s not dilute the genuine courage of those who actually deserve that label.
What research revealed
The Internet provided some interesting insight. I googled various keyword combinations to explore and test my assertion about courage. I searched for the phrase courageous battle combined with additional keywords including WW1, WW2, Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, and others. The hit counts ranged from 13,600 (WW1) to 243,000 (Korea).
Let’s not dilute the genuine courage of those who actually deserve that label.
Then I combined cancer with courageous battle and there were a whopping 477,000 hits—more than double most of the others. Of course, these search results change constantly and this is not a scientific study, but it does indicate how the phrase is used—or misused—and I’m a little sad and disappointed by the result.
I am not alone in this feeling. During my research I stumbled upon the blog of a breast cancer survivor, Nancy Stordahl, who also wrote about courage and cancer. She effectively makes the point that words matter, and I couldn’t agree more. In that regard she says, “Let’s not automatically turn to worn out clichés and war metaphors, even if well-intended.” Thank you, Nancy.
Instinctive behavior is not bravery
Watching someone else undertake what appears to be a difficult or dangerous challenge inspires us to assign courageousness, but is it really? Behavior often looks like courage from the outside, but it’s necessary to dig deeper.
If I am mugged while walking in the park and react by trying to figure out how to fight or flee most effectively, would you think me brave? I did not choose to be mugged, but there you see me doing the best I can to prevail.
It would be accurate to say I was unlucky and victimized. It would make sense to say I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. You could certainly call me just plain unlucky at that moment. But merely doing what anyone automatically does in that situation would require no more courage than a non-swimmer gone overboard gasping for air. We would instinctively—not bravely—try to survive the ordeal.
And so it is with my cancer.
Life’s risks and uncertainties
I know there could be a recurrence and confess to having a constant low level awareness of this unnerving possibility. Admittedly, it does take at least some effort to prevent that concern from becoming a more prominent fear. But other than doing some reasonable things to remain a healthy 65-year old hopefully paving the way to becoming a healthy 66-year old, there is not much to proactively do on a day to day basis. And merely living with concerns and fear does not make me brave.
What if there is ultimately another intrusion into my life by cancer or some other terrible disease? Will I then feel courageous for taking the next step to address it? This is only a guess, but I will probably just feel sad, angry and unlucky about it, will weigh the new set of risks served onto my table of life, and will choose the most acceptable combination.
Cancer or not, we all engage in risk assessment every day. That’s just life, not war, and not courageous.
Sorting it all out
Life is a journey requiring us to fight some battles, take some risks, and make some difficult decisions along the way. Courage is sometimes but not always required.
We should certainly praise and admire the strength and tenacity of those challenged by a serious illness. We should salute those who chose to bravely fight the important battles most of us cannot or will not fight.
On Veterans Day and every day let’s recognize and honor the truly courageous people in our lives.
Please email me your thoughts on courage here, and as always, feel free to disagree.