Thoughts from the dying about living

A conversation with a patient in the palliative unit

Note: this patient wanted to share her story as part of this series, but asked to remain anonymous. We thank her for sharing.

When were you first diagnosed with skin cancer?

I guess I really didn’t know I had cancer initially because I thought I would go to the doctor, they would look at these things I had and fix them. I really didn’t know until they had tried three oral antibiotics and two intravenous antibiotics that wouldn’t touch it the infection. Then it was obvious.

You move from there to knowing that unless you have pain control, you can’t move ahead with anything. The pain was so massive there were no drugs I could take at home to control that. So now I’m here in the palliative unit.

How do you feel about being in the palliative unit?

The hardest part was recognizing that I would never be home again. The tragedy of 61 years of marriage, where you’ve never been apart and now are, was absolutely emotionally devastating for my whole family and me. And I had to make the decisions without [my family], because they wanted to be ostriches and deny what was happening. My husband will leave here at eight o’clock every night and say, ‘I want to take you home with me.’ And I tell him, ‘you love me because you are letting me have the care I absolutely must have.’

Do you see him everyday?

Oh yes, everyday. And my daughter comes in the morning and stays over the lunch hour.

61 years of marriage. What’s the recipe behind that?

Compromise. That’s what I tell young people, because if you think the grass is going to be greener on the other side, it isn’t necessarily. Some marriages are impossible and shouldn’t last. But too many people jump in and jump out. I think you need to take a little more time with each other.

How do you feel about this stage of life?

When I was 31 years old, we had just been married a few years and had a one-year old child. That year, I had a mastectomy and was given five years to live. So since then, I have been blessed with 56 years of happy living and wonderful experiences that I might never had had. So dying doesn’t bother me because I feel like I’ve been so blessed. But my situation has certainly changed my opinion about a person’s right to die, because if my pain had continued, I would have had to apply [for medically-assisted death]. I just couldn’t survive it.

Many people are afraid of talking about dying, and may not know what to do or say. What is your advice on this?

I think the most important thing is to keep in touch, no matter how difficult. I feel sorry that people feel like they must stay away. But I guess some don’t know what to say.

What should they say?

What they should say is ‘we love you, we care about you, you are still a human being to us. Let’s carry on the friendship.’ If you had fallen and broken your leg, I would be in to see you or pick up groceries for you. So even though it’s cancer, what you can offer is compassion, friendship and caring.

I’m getting all my eulogies from people before I go. So my advice is, just be there. Hold a hand. Fortunately, I have a lot of friends. I may have taken them for granted before but I don’t now.

You mentioned you were religious. Do you think about what the next stage will be?


Have your viewpoints on life changed through this palliative stage?

Yes, I’m definitely less uptight. It’s settled a lot of questions in my own mind. And you realize things. You can strip everything else away: money, luxury, position. What’s it all going to mean to you now? Work isn’t everything. Position isn’t everything. Working to get somewhere isn’t everything.

Why did you want to share your experiences with me?

I had worked for twenty years as a social worker. So if I can advance a better quality of life for people, that’s always been my goal.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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