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Talking about Death

Posted 4/21/2016

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  It is fair to say that everyone who has been diagnosed with cancer has thought about death. A cancer diagnosis is the special delivery letter addressed to us that says: "You are mortal". In theory, we all know that anyway, but most people manage not to think much about it and to operate as though we will live forever.

  It is my belief that this opportunity to think about, to talk about, death is a positive and life-affirming experience. Of course is it scary and sad, but it is also a chance to focus on our lives, to truly consider how we are spending our time, to make changes, if we wish, in our priorities and routines. I would never agree that "Cancer is a blessing", but I do think that the forced focus on mortality can result in a better life.

  If nothing else, a cancer diagnosis and treatment disrupts our usual days. When we aren't rushing around and working long hours, we actually have time to think about ourselves, our relationships, our goals and hopes. We may decide that life is just fine as it stands, or we may decide to tweak some of the edges, or we may even decide to make major changes. It is the thinking about it that is so valuable.

  It can be just as important to think about our EOL (end of life) wishes and to communicate them to our families. It is a very large and loving gift to have these conversations far in advance of the need. We want our wishes to be respected, and our families can't know if we haven't told them. In my office, both in individual sessions and during groups, we often talk about this. It is never depressing even though it surely can be sad. On the contrary, it is empowering and vital.

  This is a very good essay by Heather Millar from WebMD that includes a summary of resources:

Why Death Is Good Dinner Conversation
By Heather Millar

All cancer patients know that there’s nothing like the words, “You’ve got cancer,” to make you think about death.
It certain did me. When I was going through active treatment, I made my general wishes known: die at home, no life support if hope is gone, a minimum of wailing, a big memorial party, cremation, move on with your lives.
As I write this, I’m five years post-diagnosis and officially in “survivorship” care – I now go in for follow-up only
once a year. And I have to admit, with cancer further and further in the rearview mirror, it’s easy to get back into denial mode when it comes to death – “I’m going to live forever!”
But we need to acknowledge death, talk about it, whether we’re a terminal patient, a just-diagnosed Stage I
patient, or someone entering “survivorship.”
Recently, there have been the beginnings of a movement to help us all get real and have “the talk” about death.

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