03/10/2014 03:59 pm ET Updated May 10, 2014

The Truth About Heroes and Cancer

Cancer is not a fight. It's an illness. Some people don't get better. Period.

Cancer doesn't operate on our terms, and that makes people very uncomfortable. And so there are those who have the propensity to create a mythology to cover up the realities of the disease, in order to apply an idealized version of it to mesh with our moral code or cultural viewpoints. It's a selfish thing to do, and it doesn't fool anyone. For example, there are no heroes when it comes to cancer. There are people who live, and there are people who die. Sometimes there are reasons, sometimes there aren't. Sometimes it makes sense. Mostly it doesn't. As Xeni Jardin has said, "Lots of people suffer through treatment in pursuit of more life. Some cancers don't respond. Some of us die. We're not heroes or failures." There are too many people who are lauded for surviving a disease they have no control over, and so many who are forgotten because they didn't.

Recently I found out that my first survivor role model has opted to end his treatment. I have never met him. But he was the first young adult cancer survivor I came across after I was diagnosed, and I followed his progress intently, possibly even to distract myself from my own treatment. He accomplished a great deal in his life, and I think that he's a hero. He isn't a hero because he survived cancer for so long, and he isn't a hero because he's dying now. It isn't because of his attitude or perspective, or the overwhelming courage with which he chooses to meet his fate. All of those things are commonly said about cancer survivors. It's nonsense. No one is courageous by choice. We are courageous because we don't want to die. None of us can say that we know what it means to give up, either, which is another misguided argument. "Well Jim will fight hard because he knows what it means if he gives up." Jim has no idea, and neither do you. Truth is, we just don't want to find out.

This man is a hero because, in the absence of cancer, he would have lived his life the same way -- in the service of others. Because he would have found a way to make the world a better place regardless of whether or not he was ever diagnosed with a terminal illness. Heroes are people who embody the idea that the needs and sufferings of others are more worthy to address than our own. People who know that they can cope with their own lot in life as long as they know they've done their part in making things a little easier for those who have it worse. Some people live solely for the purpose of helping others. This man is one of them. He has fought, and continues to fight a system he knows firsthand to be broken. He carries the torch for change, knowing full well that he himself is beyond help, and anything he accomplishes will not serve to benefit him.

If you think someone is a hero for surviving cancer, or courageous, or inspiring, then you're part of the problem. You're doing it wrong. Anyone can survive cancer. And anyone can die from it. You want to sell your book, or promote your movie with a heavy sugar coating of mythology wrapped around the serious, ugly core of a terrible disease; that's fine. I'll be sharing my story for different reasons.

Respect those who give back. Respect them more if they do it without any promise of a return. I don't care what disease they have or don't have.

Originally published at Zen of Metastasis