On Cancer and Facing Death Bravely


Two-time cancer survivor says lets look death and dying in the face so we don't live our lives in (as much) fear.

Pandora’s box has been opened. A cancer diagnosis creates of lifetime of fear of recurrence and the possibility of a lingering death. Mom, who recently died from advanced breast cancer, said, “Well, everyone has to die from something, I suppose.” She was in her 80s. I think this diagnosis is harder the younger that you are.

We all want to see our kids grow up and possibly have kids of their own. I don’t want to watch them watch me go through a long, painful death. Fear of death and a long painful dying is something survivorship forces cancer survivors to contemplate more regularly than they wish.

It is normal, in this abnormal state of being a cancer survivor, to have these deep, dark, fearful worries. Maybe rather than avoid these fears, it makes more sense to pause, take a breath and sit with these thoughts a bit? Our society doesn’t do death very well, yet possibly our fear can be reduced if we just periodically look death in the face now and then and see what lessons we can learn.

No one wants to die. No one. No one who has been through chemotherapy wants to do it again or lose hair again. No one wants the suffering of a cancer recurrence or a “long goodbye”—a lingering painful death with loved ones nearby watching. So how can we cope?

Most of us who have rubbed elbows with cancer are more afraid and worried about a painful lingering death than death itself. Let’s look these huge issues right in the face.

I think the more we think about and contemplate the reality of death, the better we can prepare and cope with it. Death is huge and frightening in part because our culture likes to bury the reality of death and therefore the discussion and preparation for death. We could work on being prepared instead.

I watched my mom go through hospice this year. Because of the great drugs available to help people manage end-of-life pain, I observed her with very little to no pain. Mom seemed comfortable. I was calmed by that and comforted to have the hospice people there to talk to about her dying process.

My psychotherapist has said people facing end of life who haven’t pondered their own death may feel angry and cheated or fearful of dying. Who isn’t angry and bitter to have their life shortened by cancer? In addition, she said people facing death in their 80s and beyond can feel this way, too. It didn’t matter what age someone was.

Sometimes people have unresolved relationships or other life issues. Take the time to contemplate death so that we live more deeply now and make choices about how we plan to approach death. I don’t want to be jealous, angry or afraid at the end—I would rather be able to be calm and supportive of my family. Modern drugs and hospice care are there to help with this.

When my mom found out her prognosis, she said, “Let the party begin.” I was with her and I cried. She said she wasn’t losing someone she loved—I was. I don’t think she felt she had any unresolved business at that point. She set an example that helps me be more honest and loving with the people around me in the time that I have. I won’t always do well. I am human, but I will try harder.

Practice gratitude to have the ability to be grateful rather than grief-filled in those final days. The truth is, relative to the whole world, I have been blessed with a very nice life. As one of my friends always says when I ask how are you, the response always is, “better than I deserve.” Isn’t that really so true? Most of us have so much to be grateful for in spite of having had one or more cancers and other life issues.

When my time comes, I hope I will try to remember that and to focus on that. My grandfather often told me in his final years, “I’m satisfied.”

Death can teach us to slow life down where we can, prioritize better and live deliberately. Simply put, ponder death to make the best choices we can each and every day we have.

What tools help us prepare? Yoga and meditation and living in the moment, and living deeply and deliberately—especially in each and every encounter with the people around us. I also continue to add to my bucket list and to cross items off the list as well.

Most importantly, keep faith. Whatever your belief system is, hang onto it, grow it and accept comfort from it. I read. I pray. I talk to God (sometimes I whine or yell). I endeavor to create stillness inside me where sometimes I hear quiet answers.

Honestly, none of these thoughts may comfort when you can’t sleep in the middle of the night. Right now, I am grateful that I am not facing end-of-life issues today. I really don’t know what a terminal diagnosis feels like. Still, each time I briefly face these worries and spend some time thinking them, I become stronger for it.

The practice of facing the fear and uncertainty is helpful to me and feels more honest than trying to put my head in the sand. Though naïve probably compared to people with advanced cancer, it is the best I can do with my lingering fear of recurrence. It is like exercise. With practice, a muscle grows stronger. Honestly, I need the practice.

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