Death and the Cancer Patient

Death is certainly one of the more intrinsic parts of life, so one might question why it is so rarely a part of our common dialogue. As cancer patients, we are faced with a wake-up call about our own mortality with the mere diagnosis and the weight it carries. As lung cancer patients, specifically, we are aware of the disproportionately high mortality rates attributed to this disease: the estimated average daily death rate of 433 people is certainly above and beyond the realm of epidemic proportions.

The reality of living

While some patients will fall into a cycle of doom and gloom, rooted in fear of death and the despair of an imagined lost life, before even embarking upon a treatment protocol, others may well put up walls of denial and act as though they have no worries regarding their success, puffing up their chests with faux optimism to shelter themselves or others from having to deal with the possibility of failure. Somewhere between these two extremes lies a healthy conversation that acknowledges the reality of living with cancer, or even just the reality of living.

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We are not immortal

As children and even young adults, it is easy to act as though we are immortal. Before the brain's frontal lobe is fully formed, humans tend to be impulsive, driven by thrills and instant gratification and the chemical rush of endorphins that in more primitive times helped to keep our species alive by heightening the fight or flight instinct imperative to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. But as humans, even young ones, we do have the ability to reason and consider issues that extend beyond our immediate experience. And the earlier that we begin to include the topic of death in that more advanced narrative, the easier it will be to discuss when it becomes an imminently relevant subject.

This is true for all of us, not just cancer patients, because no one really knows when an unforeseen event will change the course of a life. People die, after all, for thousands of different reasons. At the core of the treatment journey for most cancer patients, the drive is quite simply to live long (and well) enough to die of something else. Because nobody wants to die from cancer. But we know we have to die from something, sometime. We may not want to know what is going to end our lives, since there is a certain comfort in that ignorance, but we should nonetheless take certain, simple steps to be prepared for when it is time to die.

The importance of end of life care documents

So instead of just a wake-up call about checking off boxes on a semi-forgotten bucket list, let the cancer diagnosis be a reminder about a few practical items that might save headaches (and heartache) down the line. Make sure that you have your forms in order. You'll need a living will as well as a last will and testament, power-of-attorney, an advance directive, and possibly a living trust. These are all legal documents that many of us continue to put off because they seem intimidating or we think they won't be needed for so long that there is no rush. But they are not things you want to be dealing with creating when you suddenly need them, and you certainly don't want to be left without them.

Celebrating our life and legacy

There is no need to approach these forms in a dour fashion -- they can be part of a continued celebration of the life we are living. In fact, the only way we truly achieve any semblance of immortality is through the legacy we leave behind. These documents can help to cement that legacy, one which we continue to forge through the act of living as openly and honestly as we can until the end.

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.

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

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