The Not-So-Gentle Answer: 10. Perceptions of Strength

For many months now, I have been confused when people tell me that I am a strong person. Some people have even described me as the strongest person they know. This is their perception, and I can’t and shouldn’t argue with them. This blog post is the process of me understanding that perception of me by other people.


Let’s look at some words used to describe cancer…

After a long battle with leukaemia, Example Dotcom[1] died.
From where I stand, the “battle” metaphore for cancer doesn’t come close to describing what I feel when I deal with my leukaemia. There is too much waiting around, no war wounds, no impressive scars, no glorious victories, no fighting.

For me, the thing I work at the most is the emotional do something response, vs the intellectual assessment of the appropriate course of treatment, given the odds. When those two diverge, stress occurs. When they converge, I am able to accept the gifts I have been given.

“I get knocked down, I get up again, you’re never going to keep me down.”
Here is the battle motif again, and it doesn’t really apply. I walk down the decision tree, always taking the branch with the highest survival probability (none has 100%). I am always moving towards my treatment, walking in the survival direction, because that’s the only one. Is this strength? It feels logical, rather than strong.

After a long struggle with leukaemia, Example Dotcom died.
To struggle is a choice.  In choosing not to struggle, you are not giving up, not giving in, not losing. In choosing not to struggle, you are not defeated, you have not failed. Usually there is more than one way to cope with life’s challenges: just look for and choose another way. Is this strength?

After a long and productive career as a software engineer, Example Dotcom died.
I am not my disease. It does not define who I am. In any obituary or eulogy, the leukaemia should be a short paragraph in the appropriate sequence; “it happened”. After this leukaemia is over and done with, I have a life. I think in terms of “after leukaemia”, but it isn’t denial, it is a reflection of an inner place. Is this strength?


Some words have been suggested…

I am uncomfortable with this word. I didn’t set out to do this, but then, I suppose no inspirational person ever does.

When you spend several years in a chemo ward, you see all types of people, and all types of reactions by patients to their disease. A small minority take the anger route, angry at the universe or god or whatever, and they lash out at the nearest person, usually a nurse. They have that choice, and I can empathize with the foundations of that reaction. I choose not to be one of those people. Besides, I have a policy of being nice to the people who are keeping me alive, week to week.

I actively seek to understand my treatment. I don’t see how you can give informed consent otherwise. Beyond this point, though, that’s what my specialist is for. Then, after an appointment, particularly when choices have had to be made, or grim news be delivered, I work to reconcile my rational mind with my emotional mind. The objective, for me, is to regain my centre, my balance, and be facing in the survival direction again. Is this strength?

I have discovered that you make your own dignity. It can’t be taken from you unless you give it away. In the course of my treatment numerous doctors and nurses and residents and interns have seen and done necessary and intimate things; but none of this is undignified or humiliating because it is simply a part of my treatment, and getting all embarrassed about it will not heal me any faster.

Mindfulness in the Buddhist sense, is a faculty that is considered to be of great importance in the path to enlightenment. Enlightenment is a state of being in which greed, hatred and delusion have been overcome, abandoned and are absent from the mind. Mindfulness is an attentive awareness of the reality of things (especially of the present moment), is an antidote to delusion, and encourages a clear comprehension of whatever is taking place. [Pararphrasing wikipedia]

This certainly encompasses what I try to do in dealing with my disease, and aligning my emotional side with my analytical side. It also resonates with my martial arts. There are many translations of the Dojo Kun, or training hall oath. In the ZKB curriculum, the first line is translated as “we will train our hearts and bodies for a firm unshaken spirit”. This gives me the ability to walk towards my treatment, aware of my choices, and accepting of the gifts I have received.

Is this strength? For me, this is the closest match: to be unshaken. To be my true self, without compromising my values, in the face of whatever adversity life throws at me.

It has been observed that I am dealing with my disease gracefully. This is a liberating and empowering word. It means I’m doing it right; or, I look like I’m doing it right, anyway.


I accept this gift.



[1] is a reserved name, used in Internet Standards, that is guaranteed to never resolve to an IP address. Geek humor.

You may be interested in reading the earlier Not-So-Gentle episodes: (1) Introduction, (2) CLL, (3) Neutropenia, (4) Platelets, (5) Comensals, (6) Infections, (7) Migraine, (8) I am dying, (9) Living With Purpose.