Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Upside to Dying of Cancer

Stay with me on this one please. Yes, it’s just a tad morbid—but there is, I swear, an upside. This may be one for small group discussion—with or without wine, with the girl friends, couples at dinner, adult siblings, workplace lunch room.

But you have to be well past the conversational opener that begins, “If I was going to die…”. We’re adults here and we know there is no “if”. Still balking? Still believe in Superman? Come on. 100% of human beings will die. So, given that, what’s the best way?

If you are over 45 you have begun to see some deaths—grandparents, parents, friends, etc. You’ve witnessed enough different kinds of illnesses to have a sense of the good and the bad and the horrid. So how about your death?

I have seen some awful, prolonged illnesses—brothers with ALS and Antitrypsin disorder, parents with strokes—the sudden death kind and the lingering in a coma for years kind. I’ve also spent time with many grieving people—who are ill or who are losing or who have lost a loved one. And here’s my take on this best death possibility.

A sudden heart attack is a poor way to go. In terms of less pain and little personal suffering it’s good, but no preparation, no good-byes, no chance to give things to people, too many things unsaid, too many messes and if you like control—you get zip. Someone else decides what to do with your kids, pets, clothes, books and ideas.

Ditto for strokes. With a stroke you die outright (same as heart attack) or you linger in a coma or semi-conscious for years costing the family money, grief, and painful ambivalence about you. No thanks.

Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) the horror belongs to everyone—the patient (your mind works but not your body) and the caregivers die one thousand times over. (Been there. Done that.) Upside: you know what is going on, you do get to plan a little, but then you mostly watch.

So this brings us to cancer. Dreaded cancer. The disease we are trying to cure. But here’s the thing; if we cure cancer we are left with the choices above. With many cancers there is some time to live between diagnosis and death, there is some choice about what to do, there is time—months or years-to get used to the idea that the disease will end your life. The perfect cancer—if I dare say that --is one that gives you 12 to 18 months to live so you can talk, plan, visit people, try some treatment options, maybe do something on your bucket list, have the chance to personally hand your books, jewelry, artwork, favorite scarves etc. to your friends. It’s the illness with which, should you choose, you could, sort of, go to your own funeral.

Once you accept that you will die, and really grasp that in your heart and head, cancer has its pluses.

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