This I Believe

Joan - York, Pennsylvania
Entered on October 23, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65

I believe that you really don’t know about inner strength until it is really tested. I believed that I had strong inner-self. I had gone through 9 years of medical school, residency and fellowship, deprived of sleep, a normal eating schedule and the absence of much of a personal life. I successfully survived these years and had gone on to have reasonably normal life, a comfortable home and a good marriage. I believed that surviving these years proved that I had inner strength.

At age 54, I developed cancer. Not a usual cancer, but a cancer that resulted in a high risk surgery, a loss of 25 pounds during the recovery period. I got through the surgery with a reasonably optimistic outlook and a determination to get back to a healthy lifestyle. Before I left the hospital, my excellent surgeon came in for one of his daily talks and informed me that the cancer had metastasized to my liver. I remember taking this news with calm, at least externally, but I knew that it consigned me to chemotherapy and the chance that I would die from this awful cancer.

I hid my fear as I had my first visits with the oncologist and oncology nursing staff who gave the chemotherapy. I tried to present a positive face at these every other week visits, but as complications from the chemotherapy continued to develop, this facade became harder to maintain. The complications of chemotherapy were really minor inconveniences, but in total they seemed insurmountable.

I continued to work and presented as calm a face as possible to my coworkers and boss. They all told me I was remarkable, so brave. But inside, I knew that the external face was a falsehood. My husband saw what 10 months of chemotherapy did to the pretense of strength. I would lie in bed most weekends and alternately sleep and cry. Out of this experience, I came to realize that inner strength is not measured by our ability to get through short term stress or stress that we know will have an end someday. But rather true strength depends on our ability in the face of problems that may never end. That is the real definition of strength.

I now look back at those that I was close to, my mother and the lady who cared for us as children and know that they were the ones with real inner strength. They had the strength to go on in the face of chronic crippling rheumatoid arthritis and with the trauma of an abusive alcoholic husband and poverty. I listen to the news and understand the strength that the people in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere must have just to meet day to day life.

I don’t know that I will ever be able to be as strong as these individuals; but at least I have learned the definition of personal strength and can hope to achieve it someday.