Death: Part 1

Posted February 3rd, 2009 by Jane

At the moment of my diagnosis (shortly after 6.00pm on October 22nd 2003…etched in my memory) the arrogant certainty I had of outliving most of my peers, of living into my 80s (as my parents had done) or my 90s (as maternal grandparents had done) dissolved into nothing and a video track of illness and eventual and inevitable death from cancer passed through my mind. As it happened I didn’t actually know at that moment how bad my diagnosis was; I knew nothing much then of grades and stages and hormonal status. 6 days later and blunt Dr. S. told me I had a 40-50% chance of living 5 years (subseqently the odds shortened to 30%…I have of course lived longer but we all know the sting in the tale).

While others in the first days of their diagnosis determine to put up a battle and ‘think positive’, and search internet sites for post operative exercises, nifty reconstructions and colourful scarves, I started reading and reading and reading everything I could lay my hands on about death in general and death by (breast) cancer in particular. I reread Ruth Picardie’s brilliant columns…and John Diamond and an account of dying by a woman and her partner which I had read 15 years earlier: Cancer in Two Voices by Barbara Rosenblum and Sandra Butler. I sent round robin letters to friends quoting my statistics and talking about my likely demise. Hardly anyone responded or engaged with the thing I most wanted to talk about..the real concrete sense I now had of my own mortality. It was as though talking about death might bring it on quicker. Death talk becomes an embarrassment. As it happened I went to the funeral of a friend and colleague who’d died of breast cancer just a couple of weeks after my chemotherpay started, and there I remember that most people didn’t know what to say to me..a few braved saying that ‘of course’ I wouldn’t be like S….breast cancer had such a good survival rate these days. No one talked to me about my fear that I could be just like S. dead two and a half years later.

When I discovered breast cancer forums I found that here too there was enormous silence surrounding death. Occasionally yes there are discussion threads about funeral planning and memory boxes, and women write movingly of their desperation at leaving children. However, no one talks about what the process of dying from advanced cancer might actually feel like and there’s nothing about the existential anxt of facing death. Deaths in breastcancerworld are mourned but too often in a rather Dianaesque way…by which I mean there’s a good deal of public gnashing of teeth and weeping of tears for the brave and inspirational deceased…sometimes it feels, as a cyber friend once said, like vultures circling the dead flesh.

In January 2007 I started an OU course called Death and Dying. It was a splendid course with brilliant materials. I wrote my first essay comparing the work of 4 theorists on death and dying..and it turned into an analysis and discussion of whether contemporary western society is ‘death denying’. I concluded that though there are many aspects of death and dying which appear to be very public (not least the media attention to celebrity death and tragic accidents) it is in the lack of ordinary conversation and discourse about dying that the whole subject becomes taboo.

This is only Part 1…I shall return to this theme. Oh, and I abandoned the OU course when I was rediagnosed..couldn’t get the essays done with chemo brain.