Death and Cancer Loneliness
I recently had an experience I can't get out of my mind. At a Pathway's Women's Cancer Teaching Project panel presentation, a co-presenter shared her story of living, and dying, with cancer.
She told us the facts of her cancer, which I won't share here to protect her privacy. The point of her story, however, was not the cancer. It was the fact that the cancer should have statistically killed her years ago and was going to kill her soon enough. It was just a matter of time.
The certainty of her cancer was accepted. What she was struggling with was how to approach the end of life. She noted that we give showers and parties to welcome life, but we have no way to even talk about death. She wanted to discuss it with her family. She wanted to talk about her final days, plans for her funeral, and saying good-bye, but her family members rolled their eyes and changed the subject when she tried ever so gently to bring it up. She didn't blame them, of course. She noted that she should start cleaning out her house now while she was able, but couldn't bring herself to do it because she was in denial herself.
She spoke with grace, humor and honesty. She assured us that, while she was still able, she was enjoying life by traveling and spending time with family and friends. As I listened intently, I felt a level of tension and focus in the room I've never felt before. I knew as I listened that I would never know until it was my turn how I would handle the end of life. Would I have her level of acceptance and strength? Will I know how to lead my family though such a loss? How will I say good-bye?
After the presentation we spoke and I told her about a book I read a few years ago, Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life, by Eugene O'Kelly. The book is a memoir written in the three and a half months between Mr. O'Kelly's terminal brain cancer diagnosis and his death. In it, he makes hard decisions about how to spend his remaining days and say good-bye to everyone in his life. It was a hard book to read, but I will never forget reading it and I hope it is of help to her.
Because I can't possibly relate to what she is going through, I would never presume to understand her experience. All I know is that, although I've written about the loneliness of cancer before, I'm sure I witnessed the epitome of cancer loneliness during her presentation. With the recent death of two breast cancer bloggers and news that yet another woman I know has been diagnosed with breast cancer, the losses of cancer never let you forget that we are all chasing daylight.
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