So Long, Brave and Strong

Before and After Cancer Stephanie Madsen

I’ve carried the weight through deep valleys and dark caves. Hunched over, I’ve trudged through quicksand, walked miles through the most desolate of deserts, and clawed my way over the steepest cliffs. Feet worn raw, knees scuffed, fingers bleeding. Sweat stinging fresh wounds. Several times wanting to quit, I didn’t.

Tripping over rocks, my heart whispered, “Brave and strong.” My body aching. Sore and tired and desperate for rest, the wind beckoned, “Brave and strong.” Needing water. My tongue dry and cracked, family shared, “Brave and strong.” My skin burned and tender, friends called, “Brave and strong.” Repeating over and over like a skipped record playing in my mind.

Brave and strong.
Brave and strong.
Brave and strong.
Brave AND strong.

Though not fully convinced, I started to believe it. Soon, I lived it. There was no other option. When fear arose, I’d be brave. When defeat taunted, I’d be strong. For years, this became who I was. Ingrained in the core of my being, this was my name. Through it all, this was me. Cancer couldn’t compete, for I was far too brave and far too strong.

It wasn’t until the heat of the desert cooled, the sun slipped into the night, and the moon shone bright once again that I realized brave and strong wasn’t all I’d been. The light has a powerful way of illuminating even the darkest places. Behind brave and strong hid terrified and incapable. Afraid, weak, uncertain. Behind the warrior was the wounded. Behind the shield was the flesh. Until now, I didn’t even understand that there was something beyond bravery and strength. I didn’t have the capacity to carry the weight of it all, so for that season, I clung to brave and strong.

Pummeling perspective into my spirit, this realization has been swift and direct. When you hear that you’re brave and strong enough times, you take ownership. You embody the meaning of each word. They transcend from mere words to providential destiny. They grow big and mighty, overshadowing the rest. Though several moments left me shaking in fear, brave and strong took over. There was no time, no energy, no resources, no ability to be less than. But then the sun sets, pushing them off into the horizon. When cancer loomed like an endlessly haunting ghost, I wore the shield. But cancer is further and further away in the distance and I’m learning that there’s more. Behind brave and strong is great vulnerability.

I’m sitting in that vulnerability now. I’ve set the shield down and have noticed my wounds. Oh, the wounds. Burning, searing pain. My guts are all but spilling out before me, and I sit here looking at the carnage of the miles journeyed these last few disease-stricken years. It may sound odd… It sounds odd to me… I didn’t realize how much cancer had hurt me. How many wounds brave and strong covered up. How much fear and desperation the shield shadowed. For so long I denied the pain in order to endure it.

In a battle to the death, I have won. I’ve survived, succeeded, and overcome. Endurance has paid off and now it’s time to rest. Time to recover. Time to unwind. And most of all, time to heal. Looking at these wounds, I’m realizing healing isn’t going to be an easy process. It’s going to bring with it its own level of pain. A pain that must be walked through, not avoided. While the shield of brave and strong allowed me to endure the wounds, healing will force me to clean them. To heal is to pick out the thorns, wipe away the dirt, cleanse the area, and delicately salve. If not properly cleaned, the wound is restricted from healing. Yet, if you allow the healing to begin, but pick the scab each time it develops, ultimate healing cannot occur either.

I can’t tell you that I’m excited to clean my wounds. From what I’m seeing on the surface, it looks messy. Years and years of struggle caked into deep gashes. I also can’t tell you that I even know how to clean this on my own. I’ve never attempted a wound so deep. Like many, I’m going to need reinforcements like counseling, therapy, and support. Of this, I am not ashamed. And neither should you be. I can tell you that I do look forward to the relief healing brings. I know I can’t begin to fathom the debris that rests in my wounds, but I’m ready to scrub it out. I’m ready for the soothing comfort of the salve and the cute design on the bandaid I’ll pick out.

I know I’m not the only one who has carried a shield through the trenches of life. We all do. It’s how we survive. Just as I was brave and strong, so you may be too. But once the battle is over and the dust settles, the shield’s job is done. Shine it up, we’ll need it again someday for a different circumstance. Because… L I F E. It can be terrifying to address your wounds. To look down and see what happened behind brave and strong. But I have faith that healing comes from vulnerability. That redemptive restoration is birthed in the midst of that vulnerability.

It’s time to heal. I’ll grab the bandaids.

Jeremiah 30:17 (ESV)

“For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, declares the Lord…”

10 Comments on So Long, Brave and Strong

  1. Julia Gardner
    July 20, 2016 at 5:26 AM (8 years ago)

    Such a perfect word picture. This really spoke to me, thank you!

    • Stephanie
      July 20, 2016 at 12:15 PM (8 years ago)

      You are so welcome. Imagery really helps paint the picture doesn’t it!?

  2. Leisha
    July 20, 2016 at 8:15 AM (8 years ago)

    I am feeling it too sister. Week from battle, desperate to just push “resume”. ButI must asses what I have been thru. Wanting life to just be “normal”. When I was deep in middle of chemo, I felt I was doing something to fight. When my breasts were taken, I felt I was getting rid of the diseaded tissue to keep it from infecting the healthy cells. When I had radiation, I was killing anything that lurked nearby. Now I am left to wonder, wait and worry? No. I have decided to lose the weight I should have long ago. Exercise to heal my body. And most of all, give my worry to God. It is far too much to bear by myself and it is simply not my job, it is His. To coin tge old phrase” I am strong, I am invincible…I am woman” Amazing what a good song can do for your soul, thank you Helen Reddy. I can do it simply because I have been doing it.

    • Stephanie
      July 20, 2016 at 12:20 PM (8 years ago)

      Good for you girl! Keep moving forward. Grab onto the things you value most and just keep going. Exercise is a great tool that I’ve used to regain some of the “normal.” It helps me appreciate my body when I look in the mirror and don’t recognize all of the physical changes that have happened (including weight gain). What a blessing to also have God carry our burdens for us. What would we do without Him? The Message version of Psalm 55:22 speaks to this perfectly: “Pile your troubles on God’s shoulders, He’ll carry your load, He’ll help you out. He’ll never let good people topple into ruin.”

  3. Michelle Ridens
    July 20, 2016 at 8:58 AM (8 years ago)

    Beautiful! Tears are streaming down my face as I reflect on my own journey and rejoice for you! God is so good and you are a blessing! I wrote Jeremiah 30:17 on my hand every day of radiation (33 days) along with Joshua 1:9.

    • Stephanie
      July 20, 2016 at 12:23 PM (8 years ago)

      I am beyond proud of the hard journey you have faithfully walked and have loved watching you continually cast your gaze upon Jesus. What a shining example for all of us walking a similar path. Thank you for continuing to encourage me. And how COOL to write Jeremiah 30:17 on your hand for every radiation. God is so good.

  4. Jeannine
    July 20, 2016 at 12:44 PM (8 years ago)

    Thank you for elucidating a phenomenon of cancer survivorship that so few talk about. I also experienced the feeling of strength and invincibility during diagnosis, surgery and treatment. It wasn’t until months after I completed treatment that I began to feel a profound sense of vulnerability that I had never felt before. I have always been the caretaker and learning how to vulnerable and making my self care number one every day is a full time job.

  5. Jen Boen
    July 21, 2016 at 9:11 AM (8 years ago)

    VERY powerful post today, Stephanie!!! I am deeply inspired by your writing.

  6. Peggy
    August 7, 2016 at 8:56 AM (8 years ago)

    As a professional writer, even I lack the imagery skills to tell you how instructive and healing your blog is to families with cancer. I found this blog over a year ago when my sister was succumbing to cancer in body but not in spirit. It has opened for me a window into what must have been behind her “brave and strong” and helped me admit that those who walked with her were wounded too and that it is nothing to be ashamed of. In the aftermath, those who loved her found new and amazing strengths but also vulnerabilities that no one understands unless they have been there. Thank you for opening up your life redemptively to all of us who benefit from it.


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