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.
I have to admit I think about death a lot more since my two cancers, and I think that is OK.
Death and dying are reality for everyone, yet our western approach to life often prefers to gloss it over. Honestly, facing my fear of death has helped me to become, well, a little more comfortable with it, and even somewhat less fearful. Maybe the younger a person is at the time of cancer diagnosis, the more fear will be a factor, but I don't think that is the whole story.
Death is a universal and yet a very personal experience. I gained an understanding of that from my cancer talk therapist and also from my mom when she died of cancer two years ago. When my mom learned that her breast cancer had advanced past treatment, she commented, "Everyone has to die from something, I suppose." Her words at age 84 seemed very stoic compared to my intense fears and tears when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 46, years before my mom ever had cancer.
Cancer survivors are given the opportunity to contemplate death. I would surmise that many of us worry about a painful and/or lengthy death from our cancer. How can we not think about it? The cancer could get us this time or it could return and get us down the road. What is my advice nine years out from my first cancer diagnosis? Face it. Face death.
Take a breath. I did not say sit in a dark room and contemplate dying for hours! Death is a big unknown. Take a peek at death for a few seconds or minutes at a time. What do you want your death to look like? How do you want to end things with the people you love? What do you want to take care of, in the near future, to be more ready for it?
I tend to be a crybaby. I do not think that will change at my death, but maybe I can contemplate what being just a little bit calmer might look like? I can also work to put death wishes and wills in place before the event - hopefully long before. Facing death reminds me that there are a lot of things I really do not control, and I think that is a healthy perspective.
Some of us have watched others go through the dying process. For my mom and my grandpa, it was a fairly lengthy process, yet it seemed that pain management was there and the process was pretty calm. The hospice people were very helpful. I take comfort in those things. I feel like having a little understanding helps me to reduce my fear.
So maybe the real trick is to live life to the fullest and work to accomplish whatever goals we have today. To reduce any feelings of being angry or feeling cheated by death, work on that bucket list and those relationships now. Work on being the person you want to be tomorrow, today.
Ideally, I do not want to be trying to rapidly deal with my own issues toward the end. Instead, I would like to try to take comfort in my belief system and be there for those who care about me. That seems like a pretty lofty goal and I know there will be tears too, but I may at least choose to prepare and then try to put those thoughts into practice when the time comes. Right?
I am grateful that I am not facing death today. I know that is not true for everyone reading this. I send all of us my thoughts and prayers and wishes for a smooth transition, without standing at the edge of the cliff today myself. I hope and believe that facing some of these thoughts today will help us better prepare for the tomorrow that each of us knows will come. I am not saying it is simple or easy - I am just keeping hope that contemplation and preparation will help.