Having a Nice Day

Posted May 24th, 2009 by Jane

The elephant arrives unexpectably sometimes. Just when I think I’ve got it sussed..that its possible to talk about cancer and death without embarrassment or awkwardness someone brings along the elephant and I feel like I’m back to the beginning. The elephant came uninvited to lunch a couple of weeks ago, ushered in by a friend determined to spend the next few hours helping me feel better by talking about anything but my cancer.

I don’t know how I managed to collude for 3 long and lonely hours. I tried lobbing a few balls over the elephant..like mentioning my greed for ice cream was steroid induced; like mentioning I’d been in pain: but they fell on stony ground.

Why is it so difficult and painful for people to talk about death? Particularly death by cancer? Do people imagine that if it is not spoken about that the person with cancer somehow forgets they have it? Do they think that talking about death will somehow bring on my death more quickly? Are people embarrassed in my dying presence?

People with cancer are of course all different and as I’ve said before, it is very hard to get the balance of talking about ‘it’ right. In general I get a bit tired of having to talk about symptoms, latest treatments, detail of the prognosis etc. But sometimes I do want to talk about how it feels to be living with terminal cancer. And I think its pretty reasonable to expect that 5 minutes in a three hour lunch might be spent talking about cancer. There used to be a time of course when I didn’t have terminal cancer and I remember the difficulty I had knowing what was the ‘right thing to say’. Apart from cyber friends I’ve had two close friends/ colleagues who predeceased me with cancer. R. died in 1999 of ovarian cancer and I owe her so much in learning about the possibilites of talking about dying, of how dark humour helps, about how it really is possible to live with dying. When I first got diagnosed I so wanted her back in my life again to talk this stuff through.

In 20 years time my peers will be dying in numbers…death won’t be unusual. But right now, even at 60, most of my peers are fit, healthy and very much alive. I guess my death scares them; I guess people think they wouldn’t be able to cope; I guess people feel that what is happening to me is the most awful imaginable thing. It would be good perhaps if people could use me as a resource…let me tell you what it actually feels like to know you’re dying and will be dead probably pretty soon.

It hurts so much that people think if they talk about my cancer and my death that it will spoil a nice day. Remember I have been living with the sword of Damocles firmly over my head for the last 2 years, and with a poor cancer prognosis for 5 plus. But I still read the papers, go to the cinema, have holidays, ponder the expenses scandal, lunch etc etc just like I used to…and I enjoy all of them. I have got used to living with the knowledge that I’m dying and the only way I can live with it is to acknowledge it, talk about it, name it. I can only enjoy the ordinary things of a nice day with this acknowledgement. Bringing the elephant along insults me and renders me invisible.

It also makes me feel very sad. I want to die knowing that my life has meant something. I want to reminisce with my friends, remember who I have been, what I have done with this very priviliged middle class western life. I am desperately sad to be dying. I weep bucket loads of tears…they remind me I am still alive.