Last week, our online writing group, Write for You, met, and focused on the topic of courage. To get started, we drew mind maps capturing the words we associate with “courage,” then discussed those a bit. Next we wrote, using the prompts I provided. Each of us had our own take on the meaning of courage, which we talked about in closing. Hearing one another’s thoughts was as full of discovery as was doing my own writing.

As I wrote, I found myself considering the connection between fear and courage. Reflecting on this later, I wrote:

The moment your fears come true is the moment that gives birth to courage.

Sometimes we don’t get to go straight to courage. Instead we have to traverse a path through fear, despair, sorrow or anguish first. Allowing ourselves this journey enables us to find our courage. Once we do, courage may not be a constant state, but if we have to leave it for a time, we can find our way back.

These thoughts were still with me the next day, when I had an experience that I am still thinking about and feeling.

I had a 3-week check up with one of my surgeons, Dr. Slezak, on Friday afternoon. She affirmed that all is going well with healing and recovery. As I left, I saw a woman seated in the very chair I sat in 6 months ago after a detailed discussion with Dr. Schnaper of my diagnosis, treatment plan and prognosis. Next to her stood a man who I took to be her husband, as my husband had been at my side.

The woman was quiet, her face a composed mask covering a terror that I could feel as I approached her. It was as if I were walking toward my own 6-months-earlier self. She, a tall, shapely, long-limbed and utterly striking African-American woman, could not have looked more different from me. And yet, she was me. My heart beat with hers as I approached. She looked at me, smiled and said “How are you?” Tears began silently spilling down her face. “I’m ok,” I said, “How are you?” Through her tears, she said, “I’m fine. But are you all right?” emphasizing the “are.” She added, “You’re so tiny,” in a wondering tone.

I found myself hugging her, her dampened cheek against mine, our arms around each other. “Yes, I am. I am fine.” I understood her to be asking, “Is it possible to go through this, and be ok?” and, “You were able to do this, even as tiny as you are?” It was evident from my appearance and the setting (scarf wrapped head; cancer surgeon’s office) that I’ve been through treatment. I could not assure her that she would be fine, as I knew nothing about her situation.What if she had just been told she has a very grim prognosis?

I would not try to “positive talk” away a cancer patient’s fear. Feeling that fear and finding the courage to move through it is part of the path to recovery. You can’t just leap to courage and deny that fear; it doesn’t work that way. Plus, we have a right to the darker emotions we experience, and it does no good to have others deny them.

At the same time, I would not want to say anything that might feed the fear so that it grew and overwhelmed her.

I simply repeated “Yes, I am,” each time she asked, “Are you all right?” I hope that was enough, that in itself my just being there inspired hope in her with the living proof that you can navigate your way through the unknowns of treatment and emerge whole.

I made eye contact with her husband. He smiled slightly, and said, “Okay then, thank you.”

“I wish you both well, ” I said as I left.

I have had many, strangers, friends, and family, reach out to me with love and compassion throughout this time. It has meant a lot. It has given me strength and hope. It has helped me find my own courage. Perhaps I managed to share some of what I have been given with this woman, who is her own strong and beautiful self, and who reminded me so powerfully of my self.