Why Are We So Afraid of Death?

Lung cancer patients often enter treatment with a comparatively poor prognosis and statistically low chances of surviving more than a few years. Looking at the information aggregated over the past few decades, unsurprisingly, many patients assume that they will soon be dead, regardless of their treatment choices. And then they enter treatment already depressed and afraid and sometimes desperate.

Don't fall victim to snake oil cures

Desperation may lead patients to make choices that actually make their situation worse, falling prey to the fearmongering tactics of many alternative health practitioners. Snake oil is a huge industry, with tens (possibly hundreds) of millions of dollars being made through questionable medical practices and scientifically unproven treatments. It is the fear of cancer as a harbinger of death that feeds conspiracy theories about hidden cures and collusion within an imagined international Pharmaceutical/Government cabal.

The "natural health" industry has grown significantly in recent years, with extreme factions promising painless cures through diet or herbs (though most people within the natural health community simply focus on healthy lifestyle choices). But following the self-professed Wellness Warriors who promise cures outside of medical science often leads to significantly delayed treatment for patients who could have been cured or given the opportunity to live with a managed disease.

Why is this fear so strong?

One must then question why the fear of death is so strong that it causes patients to eschew rational thought and instead cling to the promises of strangers without the ability to back up their claims.

Death is treated differently between cultures. Our understanding of what it means is colored by religious context, social norms, and media exposure. Different nations, and particularly indigenous peoples, often have markedly different approaches to their end-of-life ceremonies and how these involve their communities. Some cultures will keep the deceased on display for a period of time, welcoming people into the home to spend time with the body. For some, it is a period of mourning, while for others it is a period of celebration. There are cultures who believe that the dead are always with the living, others that believe the dead are in a distinctly separate place. And there is the uniquely modern, Western sensibility that death is something to be hidden away, an embarrassment to our youth-oriented culture, a nasty reminder of everyone's mortality.

Death is a natural part of life

Yet, death is as natural as birth in the cycle of our lives. It is unpredictable, even when it is anticipated; humans have a tendency to rally just before the end, giving the impression of an improvement that makes the death shocking. And, of course, even with a terminal disease, there is a chance that death will come from something else. In fact, with many cancer patients, that is part of the goal: outlive the cancer, die from another cause.

The Fountain of Youth still remains as a lure for many. It is the inability to accept that we get older, our bodies inevitably fail, but we are still viable beings. There is nothing less about our value, our existence, simply because we cannot live forever. But this pre-occupation blinds us to the struggles we must face, and our ability to see them through.

Strangely, perhaps counter-intuitively, the fear of death drives people from life-extending treatments. While accepting that death may be inevitable and that treatment might be difficult (even ugly), leads to higher survival rates and even cures.

Every answer is different

The question of whether we should fear death is a personal one. It needs to be answered by each individual based on their own belief systems and spiritual aspirations. But in the end, finding peace with the idea is an important step, because it allows each of us to assess what we are truly afraid of, and separate those issues from the feelings of anger or sadness that inevitably crop up.

Treating death as a taboo subject is a disservice to cancer patients. If we talk of it as openly as we should be discussing our medical condition, attitudes will begin to change. Dying should not be treated as a burden to the living, an inconvenience to others, or an abomination to keep behind closed doors. Until attitudes change, diseases like lung cancer will continue to be equated with death-sentences, and society will have the urge to hide patients away, so we are not reminding everyone else that 433 of us die on an average day.

Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy. We never sell or share your email address.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The LungCancer.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Join the conversation

or create an account to comment.