Tag Archives: death and dying in lung cancer

It’s a jungle out here

Pretend for a moment that one hundred people are standing in front of you. The only thing you know about them is that they all have lung cancer. One at a time, each person approaches you and then shares some intimate detail about their lives. Sometimes you sense that you have much in common with the speaker, sometimes little. In each case you get an overwhelming sense of their humanity.

You are thinking about how you would like to get to know some of them better when I drop a bombshell: only eighteen of these people will be alive in five years.

It shocks you but I assure you I have not told you this merely for dramatic effect; statistically speaking, this is an actual scenario. The five year overall survival statistics for all stages of lung cancer cancer are only 18%. At stage IV, that number drops to 2%, or just two individuals out of one hundred.

Statistics only tell part of the story because numbers are not nearly as compelling as living, breathing human beings.

Now imagine what it’s like to be one of those hundred; that you too have been diagnosed with lung cancer; that you too will fall somewhere along this statistical curve.

It is a terrifying feeling, and isolating as well–as many of us feel that friends and family can’t really comprehend the sometimes debilitating anxiety that is part and parcel of our diagnosis.

We often combat that feeling of isolation by connecting with others people living with lung cancer–through support groups, social media, summits, or advocacy work. However, this network can become a double edged sword, as we are now invested in each other’s outcomes. When one of us passes away, a collective shiver runs through the entire community. We grieve, we rage, but we also rightly wonder if we might be next.

Over time, it becomes a trauma–this mix of fear and sadness. And for those whose cancer is considered incurable–and in the case of lung cancer, that would be most of us–there is no post to our traumatic stress. It is ongoing, or OTSD.

We focus on staying alive even as we worry–constantly–about dying. And, because we often don’t look as if we are ill, it is very, very difficult for those around us to fathom what it’s like to live on borrowed time.

Can you plan a vacation six months from now? Is it worth spending the money to get your dental work done? Will you be there when your kids graduate from high school?

As a society there is a great deal of emphasis on planning for the future. When you are living with cancer, it often feels as if the future has nothing to do with you.

I’ve now been living with the idea of dying for over twelve years–more than 20% of my time on earth. How do I do it? One day, one moment, one person at a time.

 

xo dedicated to all we’ve loved and lost–far too young, far too many

 

 

Malcolm

Another of my INSPIRE friends, Darlene, was caretaker for and devoted sister to her brother Malcolm. Her moving responses to my questions begin here:

Where do I begin ?? How do I tell the story of a simple life for a simple person who was content with all the simple things in life and never asked for more?

Malcolm was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer in July of 2010. Upon hearing that he had this very aggressive form of lung cancer, Malcolm began to cry, only to be comforted by a nurse who told him to keep in mind that we are all individuals and that he might well respond to treatment.

It was exactly what Malcolm needed to hear. Darlene describes his sudden shift in attitude: “He said he was going to beat this disease and that’s the way he saw it…and never saw it any other way.

In fact, Malcolm managed to buoy the spirits of all those around him:  “I am sure that the thought of dying had to enter his mind from time to time..but for the most part, Malcolm was such a positive person. He always managed to make me smile at his confidence. He always managed to keep me positive…the one who was sick with the illness, a life threatening disease, was able to keep the one who wasn’t sick and all of us around him, positive.

Malcolm completed treatment in December of 2010 and entered what would turn out to be a very short lived remission. Two and a half months later Malcolm was found to have a single brain metastasis and began WBR, or whole brain radiation. Not long after this treatment was initiated, the cancer recurred in Malcolm’s lung.

Malcolm was told he must finish the WBR before having any further treatments for the recurrence in his lung…before he could complete the WBR the cancer in his lung spread, blocking the airways and causing his right lung to completely collapse. He was then told nothing further could be done for him and he should have hospice care.

Malcolm died on March 20th of 2011..the first day of spring and the day after my birthday. On a Sunday.” Darlene feels that Malcolm’s acceptance of the fact that he was dying made his passing easier for the living. “How can someone who is dying make it easier for those who love him?  Malcolm did just this…never once did I see him show fear. I don’t think I could have handled seeing my wonderful brother being afraid.”

“I hope that I can be just like him. Brave and content; accepting of whatever outcome…making it easier for my loved ones…as he did. A simple person, who lived a simple life and was content with the simple things. Malcolm was amazing. I learned so much from this simple person…in life and in dying.”