Local Commentary

Cancer Chronicles: Heroes of Weakness

by Samuel Waters

The prince races up to the dark, towering castle on his noble steed. The bridge is blocked with a thicket of razor sharp enchanted thorns, but this does not stop him. Our hero plunges in, hacking away with his sword until he reaches the smoldering dragon, which he slays with the utmost of ease. Collecting the sleeping damsel from her chamber inside the castle, he carries her away to safety. The damsel becomes his wife within a matter of days, surely happy to be wed to a man of such impressive and heroic strength, for a man so brave and strong as this must be worthy of anyone. He is far beyond the rest of the herd of average and weak humans.

The connotations behind the words “strength” and “weakness” in our culture reveal how most of us have been taught to live our lives. “Strength” connotes many words: good, powerful, sexy, inspirational, right, natural, and beautiful. “Weakness” is sad, helpless, ugly, depressing, unnatural, and abhorrent.

These ideas are instilled in our minds when we are very young. The archetype of the strong, valiant hero pervades the stories and history of nearly every culture. These legends are held up as the most admired figures of their time. They are superhuman. They are godly.

And therein lies the root. A god. We as humans want so badly to have a living, breathing, visible idol with powers beyond our own that we can look to for hope and protection. Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that human beings can actually achieve this godliness.

So what message does all of this instill in us? Strength will define your life and give it real meaning. Unless you are strong, you are nothing. Unless you are strong, you are worthlessly average and no one will ever listen to you or care about you.  It is the reason why I have spent so much of my own life fighting to be strong.

Growing up, I was always different. I gravitated toward art, music and theater rather than the typical athletic endeavors of all my male peers. Don’t get me wrong, I pursued athletics with dedication, competitiveness and some relative success when I was younger.

But my heart wasn’t in it, and the people around me could tell. I was teased for my weight, my sensitivity, and the many small ways in which I stood out from the average pubescent male. Somehow, I just couldn’t relate to all the things that the other 12-year-old guys thought and felt.

The fact of the matter was that I had been labeled as “weaker,” and it was a horrible feeling. That was it! I would never be valued for anything in life. I spent the remaining part of my teen years, especially high school, desperately trying to change that label that others had given to me by excelling (with some notable success) academically, athletically and artistically.

At 18, when I was eventually diagnosed with cancer, I forced myself to stand back up and fight. And fight. And fight. Giving up was never an option. Aside from having an intense love for life itself, I wanted to be strong. It was gratifying to hear people comment on my determination and strength to fight against the odds. I had always known myself to have great strength, and I was finally being recognized for it. I began to believe that if I could just be strong enough, physically and mentally, maybe I could generate some kind of supernatural healing.

Unfortunately, humans (myself included) seem to forget that the non-fictional heroic archetypes that occupy our imaginations are, in fact, human. Just like us, they have or will die. Like us, their bodies will eventually become weak and decrepit. Their strength and conquests in life, no matter how great, did not win them godly immortality.
As my own body ignores my wishes and gives way beneath me, what I now realize is this: much strength lies in our ability to bravely accept weakness, which inevitably comes to us all. It requires so much more bravery and courage to lay down your weapon, turn to those around you and say “Help me. I have nothing left. Will you carry me for a while?” Instead of perpetually fighting, running away from weakness and remaining in denial, there comes a time when it is all the more honorable and courageous to stop, turn, and fully embrace your weakness.

Bearing all of this in mind, I am faced with a new challenge now. I have opted to be strong and accept whatever treatment was offered to me throughout this cancer battle. Now, however, on the day when I should be beginning the immune therapy trial that I opted to do, I receive the news from the head of the trial that I am no longer eligible to partake because my body is simply too weak with all the fluid in my lungs and my inability to breathe.

It is more than devastating. I have fought and survived more than two years past the “expiration” date that science gave me when I relapsed three years ago. I have fought in pursuit of staying alive long enough to be one of the first humans tested on this trial. And now, after all that hard work, it has been ripped away from me because I am too physically weak. Medically, there is nothing left for me to do. All that is left to me now is to learn to experience the joy that can be found through meekly submitting yourself to God’s plan.

But I suppose this is the final answer to the question I posed to God daily over this past month: asking whether or not I should even do this trial. I toiled over whether the voice I heard that called me to join Him in heaven was really His or not. I prayed He would make it clear what the right decision was, and He has. I simultaneously find comfort in the thought that at the end of this five year process I opted to avail myself of every medical option and that I never chose to give in to circumstance; with this knowledge in hand, I can take my next step knowing that I fought the good fight.

Just now I think I’ll practice what I preach by sinking into this hospital bed and letting my nurses and family continue to help and care for me. Even when I might feel alone here in this cold room, I am surrounded by humans that reach out to me with care in their eyes. I wait here for an ambulance to transfer me to yet another hospital where I will receive yet another procedure on my lungs to help me regain enough physical stability to return home.

Once home (hopefully late tomorrow), I will relish spending time with my brother, parents and puppies hiding from the snowstorm that looms on the horizon in the warmly insulated house that my dad built for our family. Each timber of this home was laid with the protection of the four of us in mind. There I feel protection and security. There I feel love; and there is so much love to be had when we embrace each other in our weaknesses. I can rest in this love knowing that it is far more powerful than the strength of any one human.

(Ed. Note – Samuel Waters completed this submission days before he died last week. Read Samuel Waters’ obituary here.)