The bad news came quickly.
It was breast cancer. It was Stage 4. And, the doctors told her, she was not a candidate for radiation, or chemotherapy.
So what can you do, the woman asked.
“They told me they could keep me ‘comfortable,’” she remembers.
That patient survived breast cancer, though, as did all the women who tell their stories in the new documentary Courageous Warriors: Beauty From the Ashes. And they even learned something about themselves and their own strengths along the way.
As filmmaking goes, the movie isn’t particularly artful. There are a few clumsily staged fictional interludes that don’t work. Most of the footage features people – one of them Darla Rae, the slightly long-winded director — just staring straight into the camera and talking.
As journalism, it’s a bit thin, too. The film is Colorado-centered, which doesn’t give it a very wide range. No Black survivors are interviewed. Its focus on women who generally chose not to have reconstructive surgery limits its scope, too.
Emotionally, though, the movie connects.
How can it not? The women (and one man – breast cancer can strike males, too) talk honestly about what they’ve gone through. “They told me I was incurable,” one says. “Breast cancer just seems to pick on a woman and everything she values,” another observes.
They talk about getting diagnosed at 22, or as they’re trying to become pregnant. They talk about romantic relationships that suddenly fall apart – and the difficulty in starting new ones. Often they are fighting back tears – and not always succeeding.
A more artful film – a more traditional piece of journalism – might have cut away then. Might even have decided that these women were too raw to put on camera. But that rawness, that realness, is what makes the film work.
Would other films have dared include post-op pictures of scarred and stitched torsos? Probably not. But in forcing you to look, the movie tells survivors they are not alone, and demands the rest of us understand.
There is some interesting, and helpful information here. The role of nurse navigators – a healthcare professional trained to lead patients through the medical process – is rightfully emphasized. Emotional support – whether from relying on a trusted partner, or finding joy in caring for a horse, or exercise, or just journaling – is stressed, too.
But mostly this is a story about emotion, a film about women who, although horribly hurt, have refused to become victims. And still, and forever, fight for survival, one day at a time.