Fear of death and dying is explored by a two-time cancer survivor. There are benefits to taking a moment to look at these fears today.
Barbara Tako is a breast cancer survivor (2010), melanoma survivor (2014) and author of Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools–We'll Get You Through This. She is a cancer coping advocate, speaker and published writer for television, radio and other venues across the country. She lives, survives, and thrives in Minnesota with her husband, children and dog. See more at www.cancersurvivorshipcopingtools.com,or www.clutterclearingchoices.com.
The fear of death and painful dying is in my face, for me and I suspect for other cancer survivors too. It is natural and normal to have these concerns, but rather than avoid death worries, it may be reasonable to take a deep breath and face those thoughts a bit. Maybe the fear can be reduced if we contemplate and explore death for a moment.
I don’t want to die. Who wants to be separated by death from their loved ones? I also don’t want to go through chemotherapy again. I don’t want to lose my hair again. I don’t want to be set apart from the people I care about. I don’t want to suffer again. I don’t want the “long goodbye.” I also visualize the long goodbye as a lingering and painful death with my loved ones nearby watching me be upset. Who wants that? How can we cope?
When I talk to other cancer survivors, they often tell me that they, like me, are more afraid and worried about a painful lingering death process than death itself. I decided to talk to some palliative and hospice care people, as well as my psychotherapist. Let’s look these huge issues right in the face.
Dealing with the possibility of death or a long painful death directly with honesty has the potential to help the coping process. Death is terribly huge and frightening. Our culture likes to bury the reality of death and, for the most part, much in the way of discussion or preparing for death. Why not work on preparing instead?
The medical professionals that deal daily with these situations say there are now a lot of excellent drugs out there to help people manage end-of-life pain. They also say, most of the time, they can keep a dying cancer patient pretty comfortable. I felt calmed to hear that and I still don’t want to die. No one wants to die. The reality is that death will happen to everyone, sooner or later.
The psychotherapist I spoke to approached it differently. She said people facing end of life who haven’t reflected before on their own death might feel angry and cheated or afraid of the dying process. To me that makes sense. Who wouldn’t be angry and bitter to have their life cut short by cancer? Yet, she said people facing death in their eighties and beyond can feel this way too.
She said sometimes people have unresolved relationships and issues. I saw a clue in her words. The point of contemplating death is to live deeply now and make conscious choices about how you want to try to approach your death. I don’t want to be jealous, angry or afraid at the end. Those are awful feelings. What to do? Face those issues and feelings today, resolve my cancer anger and fear, deal with it, and cope with it now. Live my life deeply, now.
I have resolved to try to do better at my relationships where possible—to be more honest and loving with the people around me. I won’t always succeed. I am human, but thinking about these end-of-life worries motivates me to try harder. I don’t want to die bitter and angry about “unfinished business.” No one probably feels everything is “done,” especially if death comes sooner rather than later, but why not work on death today?
What else? I have decided to actively practice gratitude. I have had some awesome life experiences. I have a very nice life compared with many people in this huge world. I have so much to be grateful for in spite of having two cancers, and I will try to remember that and to focus on that. I will try to slow my life down where I can, prioritize better, and live deliberately. This fall I am going to explore yoga and meditation. Meditation helps slow my life and my racing thoughts down. It helps me to live in the moment and to live more pleasurably, deliberately, and deeply. I will also continue to add to my bucket list
and try to work on those items too.
Finally, I will try to keep the faith. Whatever your belief system is, try to hang onto it, grow it, and receive comfort from it. That means, for me, I need to practice my faith on a daily basis. I read. I pray. I talk to God (sometimes I yell or rant). I try to create stillness inside me where sometimes I hear answers in the quiet of my soul.
In truth, none of these thoughts are a complete answer. There are books and books written about death and dying. Right now, I am grateful that I am not facing end-of-life issues today. I don’t truly know what that feels like. It does help me, though, to spend some time looking at these worries and fears in the face and to spend some time thinking about my plan.
Facing uncertainty with a plan, for me, is better than facing it with nothing at all. The best plan would be no pain and no death, but that is not how our world works. I know this is probably a naïve approach when looked at by people with advanced cancer. It is the best I can do with my hopes for all of us, and my (gratefully) limited perspective, and my lingering fear of recurrence
and what recurrence might mean. What are your plans? What works for you?