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Why Are We Expected to Be Brave in the Face of Illness?

10/24/2010 11:49 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Lisa Copen Founder of National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week and Rest Ministries

The headlines read "Oliver Stone Hails Michael Douglas' Brave Cancer Fight" and "Brave Brett Michaels wins Celebrity Apprentice." Even as Belgian action movie actor Jean-Claude Van Damme recovers this week from his recent heart attack, I'm sure his friends are saying he is being brave about even the admission of this attack, which came just one day after his 50th birthday while filming a kickboxing movie.

Are those who suffer from stage-four cancer, such as actor Michael Douglas, brave? Are those of us who live with the chaos of chronic illness, such as musician Brett Michaels, who is one of 23 million insulin-dependent diabetics, brave? Are these individuals more courageous than actors Patrick Swayze or Farrah Fawcett, who lost their battles to cancer last year?

Does our society create grand expectations that exemplify bravery and courage as the only acceptable response to an illness crisis? Celebrities coping with health crises are just like the rest of us. They get up each morning and put one foot in front of the other, whether that means an unpleasant medical treatment or going to the grocery store -- but these actions are typically photographed and labeled as signs of "bravery."

I am sympathetic to the friends of celebrities who appear as a guest on a television shows such as The View and are asked to reveal how their celebrity friend with illness is "really doing." There is no appropriate answer. If someone is truly a friend, as Danny Devito is to Michael Douglas, he is not going to say, "He feels terrible and isn't looking too hot either." Instead he will comment on how brave his friend is. It's a considerate response to an awkward question, and it does contain a hint of truth.

Is there an alternative to being brave?

While there are tools online such as an illness symptom checker, there are few ways to understand how one is coping emotionally with a disease. If those of us with illnesses were to sit in bed and sob uncontrollably, how long would it take until our friends stopped calling us brave and said we were a basket case? Can a good cry be a sign of bravery, too? Who among us is not brave while fighting a disease that threatens to take away our quality of life or life itself?

What exactly is bravery?

The definition of the word "brave" includes possessing or displaying courage, being able to face and deal with danger or fear without flinching, and making a fine appearance.

I believe anyone has dealt with the fears of a health crisis certainly has moments of bravery. But let us not forget that emotions are fragile at times; allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and let some emotions through is not only acceptable but a healthy coping tool. Tears do not signify a lack of bravery.

When our loved ones see us look the doctor in the eye and ask, "How long do I have to live?" they are seeing us "make a fine appearance" as the definition of bravery possesses. They may not see the tears that fall uncontrollably in the lonely moments at 3 AM. Brett Michaels' Rock of Love show may have been a successful indulgence, but when he was fighting for his life, it was his daughter's fear of growing up without him that "gave me this unsinkable strength," he declared on Oprah on May 19, 2010. "It gave me this amazing courage to want to survive."

How does one show bravery in the midst of illness?

In 2009 I spent eight days in the hospital when I contracted the flesh-eating bacteria in an ankle wound that quickly spread up my leg. To be honest, I felt brave at times. I did not shed a single tear. My husband brought my then-five-year-old son to the hospital to play with the electric bed and eat mac-and-cheese from the hospital cafeteria. I gritted my teeth every couple of hours when another medical professional would visit my room with the intent of causing some kind of pain.

So, within the context of the definition of bravery, I made a fine appearance. I don't know if I possessed courage, but I tried to display it. When faced with danger (like the daily debriding of the wound) I did my best not to flinch. But what choice did I have? The needles, IVs, MRIs, and pain medication disbursement were not in my control. I tried to be brave, but most of the time I was just choosing to "act" brave, despite my fear of the procedures and pain, frustration of the circumstances, and even panic over the possibility of losing a limb or even my life.

Can faking bravery can be enough to get us through?

In conclusion, let us remember that bravery can be a choice. Even if we do not feel courage, we can still seek to display it, we can attempt to face danger without flinching, and we can make a fine appearance. At the same time, let us not forget that we are human beings who were designed to feel fear, need affirmation and loving support, and shed tears. For myself, this is intertwined with my faith in God and knowing when to surrender to the emotions and when to surrender them over. Finding the right balance between putting on a brave front, and being true to our own emotions is, I believe, one of the best coping tools we can discover for the journey of chronic illness.

Bravery comes in many forms, not all of them gallant or daunting tasks. Michael Douglas' films list is likely not important to him at the moment. Despite side effects of treatment for stage-four cancer, he recently walked his daughter to school, reveling in the moment that he was able to do so and wanting to treasure the simple moments. His bravery came in venturing out into the public eye, where his appearance and strength could be observed and discussed. Each of us must decide our own definition of bravery, and for those of us who know how much we suffer in silence, it may be as simple as making a fine appearance and then being our true selves around those we love and trust the most.

Lisa Copen is the founder of National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week and Rest Ministries, the largest Christian organization that specifically serves the chronically ill. Visit IFoundLisaAtHuffPost.com to for the current featured free download that will help you or someone you love cope better with chronic illness.

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