The need for heroes, an introduction

“Behaviour that’s admired is the path to power among people everywhere”

~Beowulf, Seamus Heaney

Every one loves a great hero story.  We line up in droves to see the latest superhero movie.  We cheer on the protagonist in an action feature as he annihilates bad guys left and right.  We find ourselves tearing up as we read about the everyday heroes who found themselves in a dangerous situation, took control, and saved lives. We spend millions of dollars a year to see our favorite athletes compete on the baseball diamond or the football field and we spend our hard-earned cash on the products that our favorite sports heroes endorse in an attempt to become just a little bit closer to them. Let’s face it, hero worship is deeply embedded in the American culture and it is part of our everyday existence.  It is almost as if we have an inborn need for heroes to help us feel like we can conquer the world, defeat injustice, and protect the innocent.  It is in our blood.

There is no area of our lives that is left untouched by the need for a hero.  This innate need for heroes has even spilled over into the medical community; many diseases are now referred to in militaristic terms and those suffering have earned the title of hero, warrior, and survivor.  As many a cancer patient can testify, once diagnosis is confirmed the battle metaphors begin to fly and one finds a plethora of stories written by those who have both “won” and “lost” their battles.  These stories can be uplifting and inspiring, or they can be disheartening and depressing, it all depends on how the hero’s story ends.  Do they defeat the enemy called cancer and rise victorious or did they face defeat in the form of death?  For someone who is newly diagnosed and trying to chart their own course, these stories can be terrifying.

This is where I found myself two years ago as I faced the diagnosis of neuroendocrine cancer of the liver with unknown primary origin.  I was terrified.  I had never heard of this disease before and I was hungry for information, so naturally I turned to the stories of NET cancer “heroes”; ones who had encountered this enemy and laughed heartily in its face.  However, instead of finding solace and hope in their stories, I became even more terrified and a feeling of hopelessness washed over me; how on earth could I face this seemingly formidable enemy and rise victorious?  It seemed like a tall order.  So, instead of continuing to discourage myself with survivor stories, I turned to medical research.  Here I also failed to find solace.  Reading of questionable progression free survival rates, morbidity rates of 5 years or less, debilitating symptoms, and little expertise on this side of the Atlantic, discouragement reined supreme.

Shortly after immersing myself in a myriad of scientific research and coming away feeling discouraged and defeated before my “battle” had even had a chance to begin, I heard a voice in my head telling me to pick up the copy of Beowulf from my shelf and read it so I could discover how to be the warrior in which I had been called.  Being an English major, I had read and analyzed this story many times.  As a teacher of British literature, I had taught it to high school students.  I knew many lines by heart and cherished every moment that I have spent immersed in this incredible story, but what relevance did it have in fighting cancer?  What on earth could I learn from a strapping hero like Beowulf about being sick?  As I picked up this book, I discovered more than I had ever dreamed about fighting this disease and rising victorious.  More than any survivor story or medical journal piece, I have found within the pages of Beowulf the key to living well with this disease, how to rise above the fray, and see life in a whole new light.

Please join me next week as I focus on the call in Beowulf to be a warrior.


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