The Harshest Reality of Cancer You’ll Have to Face

A woman explains the most painful and emotionally difficult thing to wrap your head around when dealing with cancer – whether it be your own cancer or that of a loved one.

One of the strangest things about having somebody you love facing a terminal illness is waiting for them to die. I want nothing more than for my sister to live. But when you’re told that the one you love is so sick and that they will, at some point, succumb to a death that has been described as painful and drawn out, it is hard not to want for that process to come to a close quickly.

We, as a family, had been told on more than one occasion that there wasn't anything left and that she would not make it through cancer. She has recently been re-diagnosed with cancer, and we are again facing a terminal diagnosis. You try mightily to hold on to hope, but I would be lying if I said I didn't think about her death. If she is going to die, I want that to be painless. And so, even while doing endless research and trying to find anything to cure or prolong her life, I know we may face a time when there is nothing that can be done. It is during those moments that an odd pre-death limbo of waiting occurs.

The first time that she was sick, it felt like I went through every emotion that a human can have. I had them towards her, her life, her clinical care team, my family and even myself. All the “what if” questions like, "What if she had gone sooner?" "What if I had done more for her?" raced through my mind. A lot of those emotions have sadly resurfaced this time around.

Having faced loss in my life, I am not sure the reality of her death has ever fully set in. When she was diagnosed the first time, we had been told she had a very curable form of cancer; she had many complications from the onset of diagnosis. When she was diagnosed, it was scary, and I think that the fear was all-consuming that I could not fully process it all. The first time it became a reality was when she was in the ICU from a seizure caused by the treatments supposed to cure her.

While she had expressed fears of dying young, we had never really spoken about her death – what she wanted for a funeral or how she wanted to be remembered. Much later, when going through the process of her pre-BMT work-up, we did. And as she begins treatment for this current battle, we will be sitting down again to review and change those same documents.

I think what most do not understand about death is how or why a person’s death affects those left behind. Or, more aptly, regarding cancer, the ones that surround the person going through the process of death. While some may not apply the term "lucky" to any part of death, in so many ways, those who are ill with a disease like cancer are lucky. Because, unlike a sudden death, they often are graced with the chance to say goodbye and make plans. In contrast, there is no goodbye for those who die suddenly, such as when my fiancé passed away after being struck by a drunk driver.

At 24 years of age, I had to do what nobody should do and thoroughly plan to bury my sister: her memorial service, the wake and the funeral. I thought about a eulogy, music to play at the service, pallbearers for the casket and where she should be buried. That time in the ICU reframed how I approached cancer. While I thought I understood how unpredictable cancer was, cancer once again proved me wrong. As we face cancer again, I look at her and think back to when this all began. I am trying so hard not to compare then and now, but it is hard. My sister did beat the odds, and yet here we are, facing the same diagnosis all over again. And just as before, I will do my best to remember that she is here now. So I do not want to begin grieving before she was gone, even as the hardest realities of cancer are before me.

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