Small Acts Of Heroism

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

TV shows and magazine articles routinely recognize heroes at this time of year. In keeping with that theme, I thought I would select an individual who’s been especially heroic in the face of cancer and write an inspirational holiday column about him or her. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that heroism in the cancer world-the world I inhabit-isn’t the heroism that we see in the movies. It’s far more nuanced and, well, real. What I see are daily acts of courage that occur without fanfare, but deserve to be noticed.

Simply beginning cancer treatment is a courageous act. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy are scary for everyone. I often hear people say afterward, “I never thought I could do it, but I did.”

Although not speaking specifically about cancer, Eleanor Roosevelt captured this feeling: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.”

Here are examples of the courage I see:

There was a young man who decided to quit smoking just as he began chemotherapy. At an age when it’s easy to stick one’s head in the sand or blame everyone else, he acknowledged his problems and dealt with them.

There was the woman who managed to keep working during months of difficult chemotherapy by adapting her work schedule to the rhythms of the treatment.
There was a man with mental illness who underwent treatment with remarkable dignity and courage.

There was the guy who hated hospitals and doctors, but came with his wife to support her quietly through every one of her appointments and treatments.

There were the women who crowded the hospital room of a colleague who was just diagnosed with cancer. No one knew quite what to say, but they knew that being there was important.
There was the man who stepped in and helped his older brother feel connected and supported during his final months.

There was the couple that was so loving towards each other and so gracious to everyone else in the chemo suite that they made us all better by just being near.

Time and time again, I see cancer bring out the best in people.

Maybe we’re at our best when we deal with what’s real and cancer certainly is just that.

Robert Frost put it like this: “The best way out is always through.” People do their best to get through their treatment, through their illness, or simply through their day.

Heroism is everywhere in the people I see. It’s the small and seemingly simple acts of courage that constantly amaze and inspire me. As this year draws to an end, think of the people whose lives have been touched by cancer and recognize the courage they have shown by doing what they thought they could not do.

From the Ithaca Journal.

Click here for all of Bob’s columns


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