Cancer And The Dance With Death

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In one of my favorite movies featuring Brad Pitt, the actor plays the role of Death, who comes to earth in human form.

cartoon drawing of Doris White

A scene that always grips me depicts Death asking his mortal romantic interest to gaze into his eyes so that she might see his truest, immortal self. A look of abject horror slips across the young woman’s face as she and Death lock eyes. Then, the terror recedes and she resumes their conversation, although she seems shaken by what she saw in the depths of Pitts’ eyes.

That moment of fear reflected on the young woman’s face may be a common occurrence for us who live with cancer. When I was first diagnosed in April 2023, I noticed the phenomenon when I told others about my cancer. And their reactions followed a similar pattern: first, a horrified widening of eyes; then, attempts at empathy; lastly, a hug or encouraging words would be shared. But, no matter the order of their responses, there was always this unspoken issue lingering along the edges of the encounter: the specter of Death or at least thoughts of dying hovered unspoken. 

I gave much thought to such reactions last year during my first rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. It became apparent that my dear family and friends were not even aware of their behavior. And then it came to me that such responses might very well be primordial, harking back to our human origins. Perhaps a fear of death has been encoded upon our brains. Maybe folks were not afraid of me or my disease; maybe they just recoiled from the reminder of their own mortality. And since so many people erroneously assume a cancer diagnosis is an automatic death sentence — and sooner — I decided my unsuspecting listeners could be forgiven. More importantly, I would walk this journey openly, demonstrating that cancer did not have to rob me of life’s joys.

I have always been curious about death, but never afraid of it. Much of that attitude is due to my particular background. Dad was a licensed mortician, having earned his credentials at the University of Minnesota, where he joined Mom in the 1940’s after World War II. We knew that he was in the business of caring for the deceased and preparing them for funeral rituals. (As long as nobody asked me and my sister to join that particular profession, we were cool with it!) And we were familiar with the dusty bottles of embalming fluid that used to clutter the garage back in the 1960’s. Death could not be frightening if Daddy dealt with it.

And my mother’s views of mortality were reflective of the cultural roux of Judeo-Christian principles mixed with customs brought across the Atlantic from African homelands. She taught her daughters that death was not an ending, but a joyous home going. Mom repeated the imagery often taught in Sunday School: a crowded gathering of ancestors waiting on the banks of the Jordan River, jubilantly welcoming the newly deceased loved one to Paradise. We would pass from this mortal life to immortality in the next. We would rejoice for that reality.

My journey along this road of recurrence since this summer has been physically difficult. The uterine serous metastasis caused painful abdominal discomfort, intestinal disturbances and the loss of 20-30 pounds. The new treatment regimen worked out with my oncologist appears to be pummeling those malignant cells into submission, as my tumor markers have dropped greatly, there is little or no discomfort and my weight is inching up consistently. Yet, through it all, I have not doubted that I will awaken the next day. While I cannot know the divine plan for my lifespan, my goal is to live each day as fully as possible until I no longer live. Quality of life is an important issue for me.

So, very much like that Brad Pitt flick, where the young woman wisely refuses Death’s offer to join his immortal realm, I refuse to be consumed with thoughts of dying. Every human alive today will one day not be here. Demographics inform us that cancer is not the only cause of death in these United States. Indeed, your bathroom could be the scene of your demise. So, instead of focusing on my ultimate end, I opt to rejoice in every step along this road. If all goes well, I will see my grandson grow, my daughter and son continue their own intriguing lives and my husband of 40 years continue to play piano serenades for me.

I will never be afraid of death. Indeed, I smile at the thought of those ancestors waiting along that distant shore, waving me forward with shouts of joy and welcome. Then, I will certainly know I am home.

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