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Marisa Thalberg Headshot

On Fearlessness... and Being Stronger, Together

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For all that can be said about cancer, perhaps we have to acknowledge it as a great equalizer; almost everyone is touched by it in some way. Many of us are touched in profound ways, either as the one whom cancer has personally engaged in battle... or as the one who loves someone whom cancer has so unkindly tapped.

After cancer was as cruel as it was terribly foolish to choose a dear friend of mine, she stared it right back in the eye and decided to build a personal platform around being "fearless" (which has become just one of her enduring legacies). The only other person I've ever known who may have surpassed her in positivity, determination and humor in the face of this same adversity was my mom, Marion. Her favorite motto which she fully lived was: "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade."

In the role of "loved one," the bystander on whom cancer wreaks the collateral damage of emotional pain and worry, I often found myself reflecting on the idea of "fearlessness," wondering: Are we all equally inclined toward living fearlessly? Is it like an innate muscle we all possess, that perhaps can be strengthened (through exercise)? Or is it more of a state of mind that we simply need to choose to don, like a hat? Is 'fear' the same thing as 'worry'? (I, of course, now added to my worries that I wasn't fearless enough).

I so admired my fearless friend Jen. I've admired not one, but several, incredible colleagues who have battled breast cancer in just the past couple of years, with seemingly superhuman grace and resilience. I've watched in awe as two other very dear friends, just in their 40s, stood steadfastly by the sides of their cancer-stricken husbands and somehow managed to manage their careers and their kids, keeping their wits and even their wit.

And most of all, I've looked to my incomparable mom. After being thrown one sucker punch after another and never ceasing to find a way to make that "lemonade," she learned two years ago that in addition to the non-Hodgkins Lymphoma she had been fighting back for years, she now had aggressive uterine cancer, and the immediate next step would be a hysterectomy. Upon hearing this news, she quickly responded, "So, I guess that means I won't be able to have children anymore?" When the cancer recurred in her abdomen, in her completely unique and psychologically brilliant way, she chose to "rebrand" her protruding tumor her "egg," thereby turning this thing of evil at her side into something she could see in a better light. If she had a lovely conversation with the nurse in her oncologist's office, THAT was a good visit.

Through all this, I was, frankly, consumed with FEAR. I wanted to be strong, for her of course, and also for myself. I wanted to reassure her, yet I reflexively looked to her to reassure me. For really, how are we supposed to be fearless when we are faced with the "mother" of all fears: losing someone we so deeply love?

After wrestling with these questions, I have come to realize this: that perhaps "living fearlessly" as my friend so fiercely espoused does not mean aspiring to NO fear... But rather, remembering that the definition of courage is actually having fear... and still going forward. Perhaps the true measure of our mettle is that we find a way to put our fears in a sack, a sack we may wear as we go through the world, but that we manage to adjust and readjust so that it doesn't pull so impossibly on our shoulders that we cannot carry ourselves forward. We feel the weight -- but it does not stop us. Because there is no alternative, and because maybe we are braver than our inner voices sometimes whisper.

And here is the other thing: we do not have to shoulder that sack alone. The whole notion of "fearlessness" suggests independent achievement. Yet, we best stand face-to-face with adversity when we are flanked by others at our sides. We need support. Supporters. Because we are simply stronger... together. We are stronger together if the battle is our own, and we are stronger together in helping a loved one in that battle.

As a marketing executive at The Estée Lauder Companies, one of the most gratifying parts of my role is getting to work on our longstanding Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign, and as it turns out, this is the very theme we chose for our effort this year -- this fundamental truth about tackling cancer, tackling fear... and tackling life: "We're Stronger Together." (You can take a look and participate at BCACampaign.com; I'm really proud of it).

While the word "fearless" may never reach the top of my own self-definition, I realize much more clearly now that when we can find a way to stand back up (with a little help) after our knees have buckled, when we can find our smile in the darkness, when we put a first foot forward, when we persevere, and maybe even go on to further accomplish -- it seems fair to say that we have done our battle with fear, and won.

It is one of the many lessons my mother is managing to continue to teach me.