I wrote a message of encouragement to my friend running the Olympic Trials Qualifier. She responded and asked about my current recovery, of which I conveyed was rough, but generally going in the right direction, and that I was running again.
Surprised at my ability to be back running again, to some degree, so soon, she said, “You’re just so tough!”
I get that a lot. Most often, I just assume it’s one of those common, unthinking, uncreative phrases people use to be polite, or in this case, express some acknowledgement of the physical difficulty I have to manage.
I don’t like to internalize these sayings, because I think they are more convenient than honest. I’m not tough. I don’t know any cancer patients that have the option to be tough really. You either deal with the difficulties of the treatment or you suffer and, sometimes, die. So, from the young to the elderly, if you are faced with cancer, you go through the treatment…and sometimes people think that’s tough. But really, it’s just a necessity.
It’s convenient for people to say something encouraging though, to acknowledge your discomfort and pains, and I respect that. But when my friend said it this time, I found myself dwelling on it for days. I was dwelling on it, because she doesn’t have to be convenient or polite with me. We’re friends and we’ve been through our own sort of shared difficult circumstances. We’re both competitive distance runners. So part of me was really taking her words more seriously, like, “Maybe I am tough? But how?”
And that’s the thing, she IS tough, as all my distance running friends are, because they willingly throw themselves into states of discomfort, and then don’t back down, on a continuous basis. To face physical and psychological adversity and go through it out of an unavoidable necessity is one thing, but to face it and go through it, when you have the option to take an easier route, well, THAT’S tough.
I understand that maybe my distance training prepared me to better emotionally manage the difficulty I face with treatments, surgeries and the unexpected nights of pain and vomiting, but there was still no avoiding it. And yet, maybe that’s the partial truth in internalizing the idea of being “tough”, of facing some sort of physical difficulty, and finding the best psychological and emotional way through it.
Fortunately, that doesn’t have to involve getting cancer to experience.
My friends and I used to train (well, still do) ourselves to run as far and as fast as we possibly could, day in and day out, through varying states of difficulty. To do this involved steeling ourselves against the physical suffering we knew we would willingly bring ourselves to, and then keep going. We didn’t just do this on race day. We did it nearly every day. When we had to kick out 6 x 1 mile repeats at 5:00 / mile or faster, we knew the increasing fatigue that would consume us through the last two. When we had to find new reserves of effort through 12 x 800’s at 2:20 pace, we knew what was coming and where we’d have to go inside ourselves to finish. When we had to exhaust ourselves through a 10 mile tempo at 5:18 pace, the effort was going to test our resolve to run when it felt like we had no strength, physical or emotional left.
And in all that, was an undeniable sense of being truly tough.
I don’t know how many people really understand what it is to not only push themselves through a mounting difficulty of effort, but to also know the discomfort that awaits before one even starts. There is a decent amount of psychological preparation, of overcoming a sense of fear and apprehension, to even start the effort. To me, that is the genuine sense of being tough.
So, when my friend, who genuinely, personally knows what it is to be tough tells me that I am just that, I take it more seriously, not because what I’m doing right now is something I can avoid, but don’t, but at the very least, because she knows what I’m capable of, and how I’ve undoubtedly pulled on that through this experience.
But I don’t know, I’m still just doing what needs to be done. Maybe, in those moments where others might have picked up the phone and called an ambulance, and I decided to just ride out the pain to see if it would go away, that was some degree of toughness (though probably more egotistical stupidity). Or maybe it was a lesson learned through the efforts of my training about my body’s ability to handle discomfort and find my way to some sense of relief. Maybe that genuine toughness informed my current approach to managing the difficulty of cancer.
I don’t know. I would still never tell anyone else I feel tough (or even seek that characteristic) just because I’m doing what needs to be done to stay alive, but I suppose if I have to internalize anything, it’s the lessons learned from understanding discomfort, anticipating it, and running right through it during all those miles of ceaseless training. That’s genuinely tough to me.
I hope, in the coming months, I can get back to building that toughness, willingly, on my own terms, and not just because cancer leaves me no choice.