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On Fear and Breast Cancer: Finding Courage in Darkness

Living Well

March 14, 2024

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Photography by Swell Visuals

Photography by Swell Visuals

by Caroline Johnson


Fact Checked by:

Michael Crescione


by Caroline Johnson


Fact Checked by:

Michael Crescione


It’s hard to imagine cancer without fear, but there are ways to be brave in the face of it. By staying connected, passionate, and grateful, this poet with breast cancer does just that.

As a college English teacher for almost 20 years, I once instructed students to choose one word to define for a paper: love, honesty, friendship, courage, etc.

One student stood out. She chose “fear.”

This student had done well on her other papers, but this task stumped her. When she raised her hand to ask for help, she shared that she was a DACA student.

DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is a program that defers deportation for some immigrant students who come to the US as children.

I didn’t know what to say and instead focused on the assignment. That was the last day I saw her. She never came back.

At the time I didn’t understand, but since then I’ve learned that many in the DACA program live with the constant fear of deportation. Their lives are a political football.

For someone who has breast cancer, this fear is relatable. Whether someone has Stage I or Stage IV, they live with the daily reality that cancer can spread, recur, or progress.

This presents not just a biological state of fear, but a psychological one as well.

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Fear is universal

Everybody, not just people with cancer, experiences some kind of fear.

Some people are afraid of spiders, others of going into the city.

I have a fear of driving on expressways ever since my brakes went out on a busy highway. My sister has a fear of driving over bridges. Others are afraid of dogs, ice skating, or falling.

In his book “Nicomachean Ethics,” the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle writes that one shouldn’t have an absence of fear or that can lead to recklessness or rashness.

Aristotle believed a courageous person is both fearful and bold, but in the right time, manner, and for the right reason.

Soldiers face death at its most frightening and exhibit courage as part of a fight. This, Aristotle believed, is the highest type of courage.

And aren’t people who experience breast cancer like soldiers? Aren’t we also courageous?

Aristotle praised courageous people because they were able to withstand pain, not because they restrained themselves from pleasurable activities.

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Staying positive despite fear

Several ways can help you stay positive and find support during treatment, from the practical to the personal.

A solid team

Of course, the first weapon to fight our fear is to find the best medical professionals.

Feeling satisfied that you have a team of oncologists, radiologists, and other doctors on your side is imperative. Not only does it help the physical illness, but it can also alleviate some anxiety as well.

Staying connected

Still, other psychological tools can help relieve the dread and fear we live with. One is to attend a networking or support group with other cancer survivors and thrivers to share stories.

The environment of these groups is almost always supportive and can help “lift you up” from whatever challenges you might be experiencing.

Learning new skills

Attending healthy cooking classes can also be beneficial, as you’ll learn ways to cook to support cancer recovery.

Gentle exercise or dance classes can be a fun way to stay active and meet new people.

Find things to be grateful for

My medication helps me, and so does living each day, moment by moment. This helps me develop a sense of gratitude and delight in the present.

Right now, I’m grateful to be here, at home, to be sitting at a desk with the light on, working on a computer. I’m grateful for my job at a college, where I’m a part of something bigger and aim to be a leader with students.

Keep your passions alive

As someone with cancer, I strive to remain positive despite this dark reality. My passion is writing poetry, and I try to keep that flame alive.

I think finding your own passion — to know it, own it, work on developing it — is most important. This makes me grateful.

To have a passion, to be realized. To be validated and appreciated. To be connected. All of this can fight the fear and dread of cancer.

Caroline’s poetry

Read Caroline’s poem about veterans and cancer here.

Read Caroline’s poem about DACA and cancer here.

Living in spite of fear

Don’t give in to the negative thoughts and emotions that prey on your mind and rob you of precious time. They are the “unreal” side of fear. The only reality is the cancer itself.

The fearful thoughts that cause anxiety are just a nuisance and should be put in their place. Aristotle would agree with that.

I wish I could have shared this message with my college student so many years ago. I wish I could see her again and tell her to stay strong, to not let negative emotions and thoughts get in the way of living.

Fact checked on March 14, 2024

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About the author

Caroline Johnson

Caroline Johnson has two illustrated poetry chapbooks, Where the Street Ends and My Mother’s Artwork, and a full-length collection, The Caregiver (Holy Cow! Press, 2018), inspired by years of family caregiving. In 2012 she won the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Poetry Contest, and was nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her poetry has appeared on Garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac, and she has led workshops for veterans and other poets in the Chicago area. She is past president of Poets & Patrons of Chicago. You can learn more at her website.

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