We are all terminal: Some thoughts on cancer, death, and value

February 8, 2017 Published by

In the last two years, I have personally known three individuals with glioblastoma brain cancer. Usually terminal. I recently texted one of my friends whose partner was diagnosed last year with brain cancer to see how he was doing. My friend texted back to me:

“Your timing for getting in contact with me is interesting. I’m sitting in a room crying alone because I just had my very first temper tantrum in front of him. He refused to use his left hand when he was brushing his teeth, and I lost it. Hard to forgive myself on that one. He has not said anything, but I suspect that he contemplates how much easier things would be if he passes away. I know he doesn’t want to go, but he hates exercise. … LOL. I know that all the effort I am putting into his recovery should not be in tandem with expectations of effort on his part, but it’s difficult to separate the two. … Apparently any kind of strengthening will happen with exercise. His despising of physical exertion is his biggest enemy right now.”

And I texted back, “I think it was past due time for a tantrum on your part. Forgive yourself. You see, you also are experiencing cancer—just as intensely as he is. Only from a different perspective.” I have said for years that it can be more difficult to witness someone you love in pain than to be in pain yourself.

As our mutual friend Paul, now deceased, said, “It’s hell to be human.” My friend had gone on to say that his partner couldn’t do many of the things he used to do, including writing, because he didn’t have dexterity with his hands anymore.

Later that day I was thinking: I am terminal. Everyone is terminal. It is just a matter of time. It could be tomorrow. It could be 30 years from now. I think it’s not knowing the timeline that makes the prospect of death easier to accept. When you know the timeline, and time is measured in days or months and the things you love to do that you can no longer do—and it is all you can do to survive the pain—then the focus turns to dying and worrying about your loved ones.

It is the known interim between life and death that can frame our thinking and our responses.   

A very dear friend of mine is in her 80s, in poor health, not a lot of mobility, and living with controlled pain. She said to me, “You do so much for me. I feel like I have no value. What can I do?” And I said, “You can be my prayer warrior. You can pray for me every day. That would be such a gift to me.” I have learned that when I pray for someone else, all my judgment and anxiety for that person is released.

So the key question for each of us is: For the amount of time I have to live, what can I do to bring the most value to the time I still have?

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This post was written by Ruby Payne

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