The chapter you’re about to read was actually the first one I wrote for this book, but there’s no way it could come first. The thing is, what I’m about to say is what I’d like to say over and above just about everything you’ve read so far.
Because it’s a conversation we may need to have – with ourselves, and with others – at some time.
When things are going great in our lives, we pretty much have the luxury of avoiding stuff we don’t want to talk or think about, much as we might hide a mess under the bed or food wrappers down the side of the couch. However, when something like cancer comes along, other things in our life often need to move around to make room. And when we start moving things around, our no-go zones become exposed to the wide, blue heavens and all God’s children too. Oh my God, we cringe, there’s all that stuff I just couldn’t face, didn’t get around to, don’t want to think about. Well, honey, guess what? You need to deal with it now.
For an awful lot of people, thinking about dying is stuffed way, way under the bed. The plan generally is to deal with it quickly at the last possible moment. I wonder – would you recognise that last possible moment if you saw it coming?
If you have cancer, you may have thought you saw it coming in the first five seconds after somebody said to you, “You have cancer.”
These kinds of conversations are very, very hard to have. Nobody teaches us how to do it. Generally, in our culture, we don’t even talk about death for goodness sake, even though we all die. Much of our dealing with dying is about pretending it isn’t happening and wishing it wouldn’t right up until it becomes inevitable. This isn’t very helpful. We probably need to start talking about it way before then.
People don’t like to talk about dying because death and dying is considered to be very, very bad, and to be avoided at all costs. Hello – of course, it is. Death is bad, obviously sad, and can also be tragic and untimely and unfair. But our refusal to even speak about death as being a part of life perpetuates the belief that all death is intrinsically bad, as in wrong, and we mustn’t ever talk about it. I’ve learned that whilst dying is unavoidable, it is actually possible to have a relatively good death. Not everyone gets one, but I think it’s in all our best interests to see that those who could possibly have one do so.
One way we can improve the kinds of deaths people have is by stopping talking about them as if all death is a failure.
I especially become angry when it’s carelessly remarked “They lost their battle with cancer.” What if, in their mind, they never fought cancer? And if they didn’t fight cancer, but rather journeyed through cancer right to it’s end (remember, when we die of cancer, cancer dies too), would that really be so awful, so wrong?
A few years ago, I heard someone speak about what we might say to someone who was facing their own death. Their suggestion was so simple and so powerful, I’m passing it on as a suggestion for perhaps how you might want to think about it, or have a conversation with someone who has been diagnosed with cancer. I’m not in any way suggesting this will be easy. It couldn’t possibly be. But it will be at the very least clarifying. Perhaps even liberating.
When someone is diagnosed with cancer, there are three questions to consider:
Is it my time to die?
If it isn’t my time, am I prepared to do what’s required to survive?
If this is my time, am I ready for that?
The answers to these questions may impact not just how you journey through cancer and treatment, but also the quality of your life, or your death, at the end of it.
You can see now why I didn’t put this chapter right at the beginning.
Of all the things I learned whilst I had cancer and since, learning to have this conversation has been the most useful piece of information I’ve gleaned yet. I’ve had this talk with myself, and I’ve suggested it to others. I believe the conclusions you come to could very well be the only information you’ll need, whatever happens with the cancer. But that doesn’t mean the conversation won’t be confronting or uncomfortable.
We all want a good life, and a long one, but we don’t always get one. Now, given my own health history, I don’t know if I’ll have a long life, but I sure as heck want a good one – and I also want a good death. I’ve known folks who didn’t have a good death, and I believe this is as just as tragic as a short life or a wasted one. It may be time to move the couch and have a bit of a check underneath. Maybe the couch has already been moved, and you’ve relegated yourself to an upstairs closet to avoid facing the subject. If you’ve been avoiding it, I gently, loving suggest you don’t avoid it, if at all possible.
Of the three questions I’ve suggested, you may only need to answer one, and knowing the answer to that one may make all the difference. This is not a formula, or a guarantee. It’s simply a way for you to open up conversations between yourself and the folks you love, to help you recognise and acknowledge your priorities, your values and your resources.
I don’t know what else to say, except it sucks we have to even think about this stuff whilst most people get to leave the couch where it is, and ignore the mess under the bed until much, much later. And I’m sorry about that. So much about having cancer is bad – not just inconvenient, unfair, and scary – but yep, plain old bad. I know you hate this. Me too. Me too, to all of it.
Tomorrows Soul Letter is the very last one. Love you. Hope you’ll be back. See you then. xxx
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