I experienced a panic attack the day they gave me my diagnosis. Looking back on my fear that day in the hospital room, I think it was an essential part of the process of recovery. The anxiety was so overpowering I really had no choice but to acknowledge it and allow it to take its course—shake me to the core, bring me to tears, race my heart. There would be more moments like this and each one helped prepare me for the long fight ahead. During those long months I began to draw inspiration from a surprising source—the Spartans of ancient Greece.
Historians regard the Spartans as among the most disciplined and feared warriors of all time. Military training began for Spartan boys at age seven. The harsh regime, which included scant food and clothing along with constant competition, was intended to inure these future warriors to hardship and to control their fears. Only then, it was thought, could they endure the horror of war and prevail. Given the emphasis on self-denial, bravery, and discipline you might think the Spartans punished or stigmatized every manifestation of fear. In fact, they acknowledged the inevitability of fear as part of their post-battle ritual. After battle, the surviving Spartan fighters would form a line. At the front of the line the commander would suddenly begin to shake uncontrollably. Then he would cry and fall to his knees. Finally, he would lie down and ball himself up into a fetal position. Then the men would fol- low suit, venting all their pent-up fears and emotions in a similar fashion.
The ritual provided a space for Spartans to release the anxieties that had been suppressed during battle. They understood that fears could not be entirely eliminated. In fact, the Spartans respected fear as a necessary component of courage. The goal, however, was to train warriors to channel their emotions into fearless bravery during battle. Then, post-battle, all the bottled- up emotions could be fully and dramatically purged. By doing so, they believed, they were making themselves whole again, a process that would allow them to reset their battle-ready courage for the next fight.
As cancer patients, we are like the Spartans. We must feel the fear, let it run through our bodies. Cry, scream, shake, and let it all out because we, too, need to understand that you can’t gain the courage to fight without feeling the fear. I needed to feel the fear in that hospital room to find my courage to fight.