By Heather Millar
Facing reality is hard.
Our neighbor, and long-time family friend, is declining. As I’ve written several times before, he has metastatic lung cancer. It’s been nearly 2 years since the docs told him that “nothing can be done.” At 83, he’s a fighter. He’s outlived his prognosis two or three times over. Even now, he goes out with his hiking poles and does his daily walk. But his exercise sessions are much shorter now. He’s having trouble breathing—oxygen tanks now clutter his living room—and his chest is hurting. Morphine is a daily reality now.
He had been resisting the idea of hospice care for months, scoffing, “I’m not ready to give up yet,” and “That means they’ll do nothing more for me.” Family and friends tried to explain, over and over, that hospice doesn’t mean the end of care. It means, rather, that patients, doctors and caregivers shift the priority from cure to comfort. But he would have none of it.
Then, a couple weeks ago, he gave in and accepted hospice care, grudgingly. When I went over to visit this past weekend, he said he hated the hospice caregivers. “They look at me with those big eyes, as if to say, ‘You poor thing!’” he griped.
Suddenly I realized that hospice, for him, represented the reality of his cancer. For him, accepting hospice meant accepting that cancer will be the end point.
Most of us live our lives as if there will be no end point. If we didn’t, we’d all end up brooding endlessly about our mortality. So most of us ignore the reality that, as my neighbor’s primary care doctor put it, “We’re all swimming toward Hawaii, and none of us will make it to Hawaii.”
When you have cancer, it’s much more difficult to avoid the reality that life is finite. Yet even then, many of us find ways to actively avoid looking at our cancer.
For my neighbor, that meant avoiding hospice. And now, when hospice has become unavoidable, it means resisting the sympathies of the hospice caregivers.
In my case, I chose to start a blog. Surely, if I researched everything about my cancer, and if I wrote honestly about it, sparing nothing, I could tame my disease. If you know your enemy, you can vanquish it, right?
Some people choose to remain unfailingly cheery, not showing their fatigue, their misery, their fear. If you don’t let your enemy get you down, you can win, right?
Others, like Nancy G. Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, throw themselves into their work. When Brinker herself got breast cancer, she worked throughout treatment. When I read Brinker’s book, Promise Me, during treatment, I thought she seemed to be saying, “If you don’t let cancer slow you down, you can beat it, right?”
I know other cancer survivors who throw themselves into a cause. They start a survivor’s support group. They do cancer marches or races. They crusade for cancer research. They organize services for cancer patients: housecleaning, post-chemo haircuts, camps for the children of cancer patients. If you’re giving back, surely cancer won’t kill you, right?
When I think about it, though we may tend to think of denial as a negative thing, our reluctance to look at cancer straight on may result in a lot of good: For my neighbor, it staves off hopelessness. For the rest, it results in books, movies, and other artistic expression, it adds to cancer patient support, to research, to charity.
We may all be swimming to Hawaii, but at least we’re doing something on the way.
What do you think? Do you prefer to look at cancer directly, or do you channel your feelings and fears into other endeavors? Let us know here.