Tag Archives: Facing death with a terminal illness

Terminal, incurable, alive.

It’s a heady mix. You have advanced cancer which is, by definition, both incurable and terminal. And yet, thanks to ‘the wonders of modern medicine’, you’re alive–aka–not dead yet.

Because you prescribe to not just a glass half full but rather a ‘my cup runneth over’ mindset, you always try to stay focused on the bright spots. First, waking up in the morning. Never, ever, taken for granted. The chance to see your children even a few minutes longer–mind blowingly awesome. Meeting fellow travelers on this friggin ‘journey’–others who’ve been smacked upside the head with cancer–your life has been made oh so much richer by each and every one of them. And then there is the fact that you get to hang with your oncologist (a goddess) and a bunch of swell nurses—perk and more perks.

So yeah, you’ve been fortunate. And at the moment, you are on a targeted therapy that is keeping your cancer in check. You don’t even look as if you’re sick, let alone terminal.

Which, by the way, makes it very easy for those around you to forget that you have cancer at all.

But you, you’re always aware. Friedrich Nietzsche once said “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Bullshit. Sometimes it just keeps on trying.

Each day you continue surviving is an achievement. It is also a tremendous struggle–physically, mentally, emotionally, financially. An endless struggle too, as there is no top of the mountain, no victory lap, no cure in sight.

The heady mix becomes a mind fuck. If you are lucky, you have adequate support. Enough resources so that you don’t live in a constant state of anxiety; friends and family with sufficiently long attention spans who don’t drop away when terminal becomes chronic.

Because the truth is, nobody wants to think about cancer all the time. My marriage ended, in large part, because my partner found our lives too ‘cancer-centric’. I’d break up with cancer this very moment if I were able to, but it seems we are one and the same. Cancer doesn’t just inhabit my body, on a cellular level, it is me. My own selfish, nihilistic and wildly dis-obediant cells.

Sigh. Living well may be the best revenge and most of us do whatever we can with what we have to work with. I’m certainly not interested in becoming a schadenfreude. However, when living itself (liv·ing: a : having life) is a big fat uncertainty, then living well often requires more psychic energy than a person can muster.

Short of curing cancer there’s not much you can do other than to be understanding. And supportive. It’s not easy living with the knowledge that you are terminal; harder still to remain happy while doing so. Honor that.

The path taken

The night before last I fell asleep crying. Not racking sobs; rather just a wee bit of weeping. I found it strangely comforting.

A little over a week ago, in the midst of all the chaos,  I was unable to obtain a refill for fluoxetine (prozac) due to a clerical error. I missed one dose. And then a second. I felt a little odd, as one always does when coming off a strong drug (in this case, an antidepressant). By day three, a funny thing happened. I started to feel more like me. A little less dull; a lot more sensitive.

The first time I started taking prozac was some six months after my diagnosis of lung cancer. The day following my first post chemo scan (where my own hopes of a cure were permanently dashed), my father called to say he had stage IV pancreatic cancer. Dad hung on for another ten progressively hellish weeks. In a constant state of despair, I simply could not stop crying. The prozac dulled my grief and quickly stopped the flow of tears. In fact, I found it almost physically impossible to cry after I started taking it.

Two years later, as a stronger and more upbeat version of my former self, I was curious if my new resiliency was a result of personal growth, or simply the prozac talking. I went off my dose and remained emotionally intact. Six months later, when I was restaged to IV, I fell down the rabbit hole once more. Without hesitation, I turned back to prozac. Until now.

It may seem like curious timing. Life hasn’t become easier or less tragic. What has changed is my perspective; the lens through which I view it all.

I believe that the primary reason for fear is simply comfronting the unknown. Cancer scared the shit out of me until I started living with it. Now it has become my new normal. Quite frankly, death is my familiar too. I’ve certainly thought a lot about my own mortality. And cancer has taken those I care about on a far too regular basis.

Some close friends have expressed concern that I might go to a dark place again. In truth I do have a sense of going down a tunnel from which there is no turning back.

But, I now trudge willingly and without fear (a realistic dose of sadness is another story). It is my path and not without beauty. I’ve made the decision that I wish to be completely emotionally present; without any filters.

Having a terminal illness has given me access to an enhanced existence as well as introduction to an amazing array of fellow travelers. We may have lost a bit of our innocence, but in turn we tend to travel light, be very clear eyed and sure footed, and share a tendency to seize every day. Our relationships quickly achieve an emotional intensity and intimacy that wastes little time, and in general we taste of life deeply. Truth, which does not avoid a very real connection to mortality, has set us free (I refer here not just to those with cancer, but to friends, family and caregivers as well).

Death is an inevitable part of life and also a blessed release from suffering. If we can learn to embrace the journey, perhaps fear can be banished. And it is my goal to see it all with a clear head; to make the experience as full and rich as possible.