I was reading a bit about death anxiety.
“The anxious person experiences a state of heightened tension that Walter Cannon described in 1927 as readiness for “fight or flight.” If the threat passes or is overcome, the person (or animal) returns to normal functioning. Anxiety has therefore served its purpose in alerting the person to a possible danger. Unfortunately, sometimes the alarm keeps ringing; the individual continues to behave as though in constant danger. Such prolonged stress can disrupt the person’s life, distort relationships, and even produce life-threatening physical changes.” Encyclopedia of Death and Dying :: Anxiety and Fear
Prior to cancer I’d had health issues/threats that though serious, had been overcome. My life returned to normal functioning. Any anxiety was also overcome as the problem was resolved and in my past.
A cancer diagnosis keeps the alarm bell ringing, though. We are never sure the threat has passed. We feel in constant danger, always on guard and ready for the next sign of cancer, the next likely recurrence. We want to be ready so we don’t have to be devastated to the same degree if our cancer recurs. We can never truly move on as we are continually tested for signs of recurring cancer, often for many years. We are vulnerable with every cancer test. We are reminded of our vulnerability when others in our cancer community succumb to their disease; especially those we thought had “made it “. It makes us a bit afraid to join support groups of cancer patients…will we become close to someone who loses our battle? The alarm is a bit quieter after a clean test, but the alarm is never silenced.
Even those of us with great faith struggle with potentially facing the end of our lives and our health as we know it. What we have here is all we know. What we have here is all we love. Even if we believe in the afterlife, we know nothing about the transition; we have no one to ask about the journey, we have no evidence of what awaits us. We’d hoped to contemplate our demise as octogenarians, not in the prime of our lives.
When I had been told my diagnosis was likely terminal, few of the people I talked to after my diagnosis wanted to hear of my fears of possibly dying, my preparing for that possibility. I just heard “You’ll beat it!” “Don’t think negative” “I know you’ll survive”. Cancer patients sometimes truly need contemplate the possibility of dying, though. Some are terminally ill and know their time is limited. They need to physically and psychologically prepare, but they don’t have many friends or family members willing to help them or listen to them as they contemplate and prepare for the end of their life.
We live in a death-denying society. We value wellness and youth. As a society we are uncomfortable planning our funerals, buying burial plots and making out wills. As young nursing students we were all uncomfortable when the required reading was Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ “On Death and Dying”. We thought she was a very strange woman, a physician, an MD dedicated to healing, who spent her life surrounded by the dead and dying. She forced medical students to confront people who were dying. She developed seminars based on interviews with the dying. She made us uncomfortable…though she possessed profound wisdom. Wasn’t medicine about keeping people alive? Why was she focused on the dying?
We as Americans leave death and dying to hospitals, to institutions, though. We don’t want to deal with it on a personal level. It makes us feel vulnerable. So those who are losing their battle, who are terminally ill, often feel isolated.
Kind of interesting that we so avoid thinking about the one event we are all destined to share. The ultimate elephant in the room we will all one day have to confront.