The Courage of Others: How the Coast Guard and Breast Cancer Intersected in my Life

Sometimes, it is not enough to rely on our own courage. Sometimes, it is necessary to rely on the courage of others; especially when our own courage is lacking. As I have reflected on my last year’s experience of breast cancer, the courage of my husband is one of the most salient aspects of the year for me; his courage sustained and encouraged me when I was not feeling courageous at all. Without my husband’s inner resolve and quiet strength throughout the entire breast cancer journey, I am sure I would have had much more fear, anxiety and perhaps even moments of panic, than I did. I counted on and leaned on his courage, when I could not access my own. And this is why it is important for us to “wake up together” as Tara Brach says, and to rely on the courage of others. If we can trust that when our own courage fails, the ones we love can step in and offer their courage, then we can get through just about anything.

As my husband and I honor the year’s anniversary for finishing my breast cancer treatment, I was reminded once again of my husband’s courage but in a very different context and from a different time in his life. We recently visited Ilwaco, Washington. Now, I am guessing most of my readers will not be familiar with Ilwaco; I am only familiar with this tiny coastal town in Washington because my husband trained there at the Coast Guard’s National Motor Lifeboat school about 45 years ago, for one of his first coast guard assignments. We went back there to visit and to also see the coast guard exhibits at the Maritime Museum in Astoria Oregon, which lies across the Columbia River from Ilwaco.

I learned so much on our little trip that, as a native New Jerseyite, I never knew before. First of all, Ilwaco is located at the intersection of the mighty Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean. The Coast Guard station is located at Cape Disappointment; an ominous name that speaks to the perils of the water experienced by many here. This intersection of the Columbia and the Pacific has been dubbed the “graveyard of the Pacific”, because the turbulent and highly dangerous waters here have led to thousands of deaths and shipwrecks.

In the museum, I watched films of the waves building over 40 feet and crashing with incredible force, tossing boats up and down, to and fro, relentlessly.”Crossing the bar” is what is referred to as crossing either from the Pacific into the mouth of the Columbia or vice versa. And it is what sends shivers down the spines of anyone who is wise enough to know what the bar can bring. Weather conditions are so unpredictable here that in 15 minutes, calm waters can become agitated, wildly powerful and extremely difficult to navigate even for the most experienced sailor. Each year a few select (and brave) coast guardsmen are accepted into their special training program to learn how to rescue vessels and people in distress in one of the most treacherous waterways anywhere in the world. I guess they figure if you can save someone here, you can save anyone anywhere.

My husband was one of those who was trained at the National Motor Lifeboat school. His training involved literally having to willingly jump into these turbulent, unforgiving waters to save another. It was clear to me after seeing the crashing surf of Cape Disappointment, and watching coast guard rescues on film at the museum, that this assignment is not for the fainthearted.

Now this trip reinforced two things I knew about my husband that I will share with you. The first is his humility and the second is his courage. My husband is one of the most humble people I know; one of the traits I love the most about him. As we re-visited these places from his past and talked about his training at Cape Disappointment, he consistently minimized his accomplishments, his own courage and the skills he acquired. I knew that being at the National Motor Lifeboat School, required much of him. Each day he would wake up never knowing what task his superior would expect of him; he never knew how much he would have to push himself out of his own comfort zone and trust in the unknown. Even though much was asked and expected of him during this time, he never brags or boasts about these experiences and specialized training. He simply has stored it in his memory and keeps it under the “business as usual” category. His approach then and to this day is, “just do what is required of you when asked to step up to the plate.” I am convinced that this is one of the reasons why, he unfalteringly  stood by my side throughout the challenges of breast cancer. Without even blinking, he just stepped up to the plate and jumped into the unknown water.

The second trait that came to the surface during our trip is his courage; again he does not speak about how he accessed the courage that this training required of him; how he must have had to dig deeply to find within him a resounding trust in himself and in the fact that he would be safe regardless how dire the circumstances. He chalks it up to “youthful naivete”,(“I didn’t know enough to be scared”). I attribute it to his ability to willingly and unabashedly face unknown circumstances and believe in and hope for the best. This is what he did when rescuing vessels and people in the Pacific years ago and this is what he did when I was facing breast cancer. Even when things were ominous, scary and the outcome unknown, he has been able to dig deeply within himself and trust in his own ability to endure and to trust how the rhythm of life unfolds just as it should.

Forty five years ago, way before my husband and I even knew the other existed, he was trained to respond to the call of duty when others were in distress; to be there, when no one else wanted to go; to brave dark, turbulent and unpredictable waters to be the reassuring presence for another human being amidst fear and possibly panic. Little did he know then, that 45 years later when we faced my breast cancer, he would again be called to respond when another was in distress; to be present, brave and strong when another was scared and lost. This just reinforces for me that all of our experiences in life prepare us for the ones still unknown, and yet to come. Each moment prepares us for the next; each experience is valuable and rich in resources to be used when we most need them.

When we experienced breast cancer, my husband’s response was to dig deep and access his internal resources, to jump into the turbulent water and believe in the best possible outcome. Now I don’t know anything more courageous than that. And this is why life is easier and our burden eased when we can, at times, rely on and lean on the courage of others.


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Jane Ryan

Jane Ryan, M.A., LMFT, is a Licensed Couples and Family Therapist with twenty years of clinical experience. She specializes in intimate relationships, sexual challenges, sacred sexuality, and helping clients embrace their true erotic nature. She supports women in discovering their most radiant, vibrant and powerful feminine essence.

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