Few other things are more shattering than to receive a diagnosis of an incurable cancer with a prognosis of less than a year to live. Someone’s response to this “news” depends on many factors, including: a person’s age and stage in life, whether or not they have dependents (especially young children), whether or not they feel they’ve achieved their main life goals, knowledge of cancer, past experiences involving death and dying, and how they traditionally respond to adversity. But regardless of background, when someone receives that kind of diagnosis, their focus shifts from future goals and desires to what can and should be done with the limited time that may be left.
But sometimes, death can be cheated and for quite some time. The aggressive cancer responds much better than expected to the treatments given. This has a remarkable effect on the person fighting for their life. They experience relief from the cancer symptoms – the pain, lack of appetite, weight loss, exhaustion, and shortness of breath begin to gradually fade. The body starts to heal, gaining in vigor and weight, and the person begins to have a more positive outlook. Weeks turn into months, and scans show that the cancer is in remission. This situation can be hard to grasp for someone who had been preparing for death. They may ask their oncologist, “Am I still dying?”
One patient of mine who is in this situation recently exclaimed: “I did not expect to be here. I am elated, of course, but shocked.” One year previously, she lay in the hospital near death after having been diagnosed with widespread pancreatic cancer, blood clots in her lungs, and a bloodstream infection. Somehow, some way, the chemotherapy, antibiotics, and blood thinners pulled her back from the brink of death.
“Am I still dying? Can I make vacation plans? Should I renew my gym membership? I’m just not quite sure where I am and what I should be doing,” she said at a recent office visit. As she talked, her eyes widened and filled with light. It seemed to me that she was in a place few are familiar with. Her expression of disbelief gave way to a tentative smile and then to a broad grin. Then I smiled, feeling a deep appreciation for being a part of this special moment with her. I happily said as I looked her in the eyes, ‘’No, you are not dying,” and: “Yes, you should make plans and resume exercising. You are very much alive.” She understands that the cancer will at some point take her life. But we don’t know when that will be, so for now, she’s living her life.
Has anything like this happened to any of you or someone you know?