Being “Strong”

People talk about being “strong”. I hear, “you are so strong” a lot. I know it is meant as both a complement and a way of encouraging me to remain “strong” (whatever that means). It is not that I do not appreciate people believing in me. I need people in my life who have my back. We all do. However, it all makes me feel a little uncomfortable. I wonder, if I express fear or sadness, will I no longer be “strong”? I wonder how our society made it shameful to express a full range of emotions? When did it become a sign of weakness to say, “I am afraid”, or “I hurt” or even, “I am sorry”? I get the sense that only people who never express fear or grief or distress are the ones somehow deemed as worthy of admiration. But how can we be strong without experiencing weakness? We cannot. I want my daughters to always remember that just as we cannot really experience joy without knowing sadness, we cannot become “strong” human beings without facing things that make us feel fearful or anxious.

It is important to experience those uncomfortable feelings but not wallow in them. Find what makes you feel stronger and hold it close to heart. I gain a lot of my strength and support from the people I love. During long races, I make a practice of thinking about people in my life. I know as I ran my 100 mile race last summer, I made a conscious decision to think of each person in my life who has been supportive and loving. Every time I had a tough moment, I turned my thoughts to specific people who I knew were with me in my heart along the way. I know some people channel anger, but I find it is more effective for me to channel love.

These last few months, I have been very open about this whole process. Sometimes I question why I have shared my story, because honestly sometimes it is difficult to expose myself publicly. A few things that happened this week reaffirmed my decision to “go public”.

Last weekend, a woman approached me on one of the local trails. She is someone I have met in passing but seen many times. She stopped and asked if it was me, and then told me she had read my blog. She, too, had cancer last year and within a couple of minutes we were showing each other our surgical scars and talking about our experiences. She said she cried when she read my blog, because she understood the feelings I was experiencing. That ten minute conversation of connection, mutual support and understanding was so powerful. It felt so wonderful to have my own feelings validated. If she had not read my words, we would have probably continued to smile and wave each time we saw each other. We probably would never have had a reason to stop and make that powerful connection.

Monday was Boston marathon day. I had several friends running, volunteering and spectating. One of my dear friends was there. He had come to visit me in the hospital after my surgery. We walked the halls together at a snail’s pace. Tim has run lots of marathons and two 100s. His visit meant so much to me. Tim decided he wanted to wear a shirt in my honor as he ran Boston this year.

While he was there, Tim told other athletes about pancreatic cancer and got them to sign his shirt. Now, he is sending the shirt around the country to other runner friends of mine so that they can wear the shirt at a race and sign it. I appreciate the love and support from my friends, but what I really love about this is that it shows that special sense of community and friendship among runners. What I hope is that my friends around the country who do not even know one another will develop new friendships and cheer each other on because of Tim’s kind and giving heart.

A childhood  friend of mine reached out this week. She is one of the first friends I ever made in life. Now she is a professor at a university in the northeast. She knows cancer all too well, after losing someone very beloved to her. She is also a runner, and her husband was running Boston on Monday. I had no idea she was reading my writing, but she contacted me this week and said that when she needed a lift, she read my words. She told me that she used me as an example in her public health class when she was discussing people who find motivation to do difficult things. Working off of the #Bostonstrong theme, she and her class sent me this picture:

She reads my words for an emotional lift, and this week I re read her email and looked at this picture many times. Thank you, my friend.

I wore my Boston marathon shirt and jacket to chemo this past Monday. My jacket was the starting point for a conversation with another patient. This gentleman also has pancreatic cancer. Our conversation had a profound impact on me. I have thought of him every single day since meeting him. We exchanged emails, and then phone numbers. I hope he knows whether he feels strong or weak, I am here.

Finally, this past week, I ran and sometimes I walked. I ran with Tracey, and Debby, and Phil, and Vanessa, and Tim and my husband. I appreciate all of them for encouraging me to stay strong, but for allowing me to express my weaknesses. I appreciate them for allowing me to be human. Now I have a week off. I need it.

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