When my three-year old son died of brain cancer, one of my first thoughts was that maybe it was my fault: I didn’t try hard enough.
Our media and our culture have led us to believe that if you try hard enough, you can beat cancer. Lance Armstrong was considered a hero not just because he beat all the other cyclists; he also beat cancer.
We don’t talk in a similar vein about beating a broken leg, beating a heart attack, or beating multiple sclerosis. We may be treated for those illnesses and either eventually be cured or not. But with cancer, our society positions it as though the patients wage a war against it and if they are determined enough, they win. Then, at the least, they are known as survivors—perhaps in reference to the TV reality show of the similar name where contestants placed in the wilderness must, as the show says, “out-wit, out-play, and out-last” everyone else. And at the best, they are known as heroes.
Lisa Evans of the Toronto Star wrote of Armstrong, “His story was one of courage and proof that determination could beat the odds” (http://www.thestar.com/sports/article/1275533–lance-armstrong-remains-a-hero-to-cancer-survivors). Armstrong concurred: “Anything is possible;” “Positive attitude is everything;” “Pain is temporary; quitting lasts forever.”
This is an odd perspective given that few people, in any, survive cancer out of sheer determination and will power. If that were the case, there would be a lot more survivors. Barbara Ehrenreich, who had cancer herself and then wrote the book Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, said “I don’t understand what you would do to fight it. Stuff is done to you, but there’s not much you can do.”
Surviving cancer doesn’t seem to depend on guts and glory, but rather on what type of cancer it is, its location, how far advanced it is, its aggressiveness, and other such rather practical stuff. Medical experts and complex technology come together to give the patient radiation and chemotherapy and whatever treatments available. Family and friends come together to give support. So while you could still believe that Lance Armstrong beat the other cyclists and beat cancer, he seems to have done both with significant medical help.
And what happens if you’re not a “survivor?” The implication is that if you die of cancer, you just didn’t try hard enough. You failed. So if you’re a “non-survivor,” are you a “failure?” Or are you just dead?
Rightly or wrongly, we cling to this image of us bravely fighting off cancer because it makes us feel that we’re in control of the situation and that we can do something to change the outcome. Through one of his characters, Woody Allen said, “People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck.”
And we further solidify this image by seeking to idolize those “who have won the battle.” The fairy godmother in Shrek, lying resplendently and melodramatically on the grand piano, sings, “I need a hero!” That would be nice. But, like gods, they seem to be in short supply.
So maybe we need to look for heroes lower down in the stratosphere. Not all of life is a competition and heroes are not just those who win. Heroes may be those who try, fail, and don’t live to die another day. Or heroes may be those who try, fail, watch their loved one die, and have no choice but to go on living. Maybe heroes are inside each of us and come out only when forced to. Not to be put on a global stage and looked up to, but to be present in our private lives. Not to be publicly celebrated for having won the fight, but to be silently respected for having fought a good fight. Heroes are not just the ones who live well; they are also the ones who die well.
We could even form an organization and call it “Live Stronger—Die Stronger.” There may be a slight problem of dwindling existing members, but there would unfortunately always be new members. We could call the members “the Path Walkers”—a term focused not on the destination but on the shared journey. We’re all forced to walk a similar route of fear, hope, and treatments, but our destinations may be profoundly different.
Baseball player Lefty Gomez very wisely said, “I’d rather be lucky than good.”
We were not lucky.
However, I was in a room full of heroes that day. One little hero died in that bed, while the rest of us—parents, grandparents, sister, cousin, aunts—stood around, with our hands touching him, our hearts breaking and watched him go.
Later, as we stepped out of the Alberta Children’s Hospital and into the cold winter evening, I don’t know who had survived.
Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer and an academic editor.