For the most part, having cancer is something that hangs out in the background of my mind, shadowing but not a part of my life. It’s not a problem in the present, except in the efforts to keep it from becoming a problem in the future. Even that, I have certain specific fears. I fear what the disease itself can do to you. I fear being a burden on my family. I fear leaving those I love, I fear their grief.
But I don’t actively fear death. This morning when I first woke up, the thought that I have cancer passed through my mind and I felt a stab of fear. And then I let it pass.
My thoughts about death come from certain experiences I have had. General anesthesia is one that has made me more comfortable with death. Call me weird, but I like general anesthesia, the complete absence of pain, thought, the now your are here and now you are not.
But the one that has most stuck with me was the experience of passing out, losing consciousness. I had felt it coming and coming, and I had fought against it. I was trying to get my credit card out of my wallet in my purse to order pizza, and I kept trying and trying, kind of weakly calling to my daughter to help me put the credit card number into the order. Then finally I gave up on trying to hold on. I laid my head down on my purse and let myself go. It was very peaceful until I regained consciousness to hear my daughter on the phone with 911.
Yesterday afternoon, for some reason, I was overcome by weakness for a couple of hours. It is the low period in my treatment. After my blood work on Wednesday, I was told not to take the final pill in my treatment cycle, because my neutrophils were too low. So perhaps it is that, blood counts. I also worked out on my new elliptical trainer yesterday. It wasn’t overly difficult, but it might have contributed. Whatever it was, my knees started getting shaky, so I went to lie down. I laid there in bed and the weakness just spread throughout my body. I could, and did, get up, to go to the bathroom, to get a drink, but for a couple of hours I just felt sooooooo tired.
And as I laid there in bed, the thought of dying passed through my mind. Not that I thought I was dying, but was this what it felt like? My mother passed away from emphysema. I had a friend whose mother had died from emphysema, and I had asked her what it had been like. I had fears of my mother gasping for air like a fish out of water. “It was very peaceful,” my friend said. “She just got more and more tired, until one day she could not get out of bed, and a few days later she died.” And that is exactly what happened with my mother. She got more and more tired, until one day she could not get up. I got her to the hospital, where she slept, and three days later she died, peacefully.
On the other hand, I know a woman whose teenage son died of cancer. Or I should say, I know of her, because her son’s cancer battle captured the attention of the entire Bay Area and beyond through social media. I remember her talking about his death, saying that it was not the peaceful transition that it was supposed to be, that it was horrifying and agonizing. She said she felt the medical professionals had let her down. He died as home, as they wanted, but things and people who should have been in place at that time weren’t. If she gave details, I did not see them, just the expression of her pain over how it happened.
I have no idea why I am writing this. I have just committed myself to ceasing self censorship, which in the past would have told me, “Sharon, people don’t want to hear this depressing stuff on their Sunday morning.”
Ultimately, I am talking to myself. Do they have death with dignity here in Iowa, I wonder? I know they did in California. I walked with a friend through the process in her own cancer battle, through the appointments with doctors, the psychiatric evaluation, the approval, the delivery of the medication to her home. I don’t think she actually used it. I think she died sad and not completely herself. It is a hard thing to actually decide to end your own life, however miserable you are. As much as I tell you that I don’t fear death, I don’t know if I could do that.
Anyway, carry on. Let’s go back to our loved ones and enjoy every moment of this beautiful day. But if you have any thoughts or experience with death and would like to share it, you are welcome too.