Following the death of Senator Ted Kennedy earlier in the week, one writer used the event to deconstruct one of the most ludicrous metaphors surrounding death: the idea of “losing a fight with cancer”:
The fighting metaphor, especially when applied to cancer, drives me nuts. Cancer is not a war or a football game. It’s an involuntary dance with a partner you didn’t choose. The fighting metaphor is insidious because it not so subtly implies that if you fight, you can “win.” And that if the cancer takes your life, if you “lose,” it is to some extent your fault. It’s not only patients and their loved ones who fall into this battlefield thinking, but doctors, too, who often see death as a failure. Their failure.
In truth, cancer doesn’t care whether you fight or not, whether you win or not. It’s simply there, just like all the other horrible, debilitating, scary, painful, life-wrecking chronic diseases that millions of Americans deal with every day.
The challenge, it seems to me, is to do precisely what Ted Kennedy did. He sailed his boat. He spent time with his wife and kids. He found good doctors, and trusted them. And he kept doing the work he loved, right up to the end.
Whatever your feelings on the now deceased Senator, if it’s true that he accepted his fate and spent his time settling up his estate, sailing his boat, and spending time with family, the man at least had a decent attitude toward death. Then agan, doesn’t this just go to show that people don’t live full lives until they’re given a death sentence by a doctor?
The writer of the op-ed raises some good points above: other people treat death as something that’s not inevitable until the bitter end, so we like to label a body’s battle with cancer as a fight that can be won instead of embracing the reality of death and moving on from there. There are walks with pink ribbons dedicated to this idea: find a cure. Everyone has a story; my mother, her sister, that guy’s aunt all died of “Cancer Of The [fill in the blank]“, and can somehow try to change that by walking a few miles and raising money to give to a research institution. I’m more interested in why the person who is given the death sentence suddenly lives a full life when they should have all along.
Since most people know that hardly anyone truly lives a full life these days, we consider it more tragic if someone gets hit by a bus and is otherwise young and healthy when they die, vs. having brain cancer at an old age and suddenly becomes enlightened during those six months to one year when one has time to plan the closure of one’s life.
If there’s time involved, we can call it a fight, we can hope for a miracle; we can melodramatize about death and call someone who accepts it a valiant man of honor, and that makes us feel good about our own mortality – if briefly. In reality, death doesn’t discriminate, so we get upset when it strikes unexpectedly. Death will take you any time, and the best thing you can do is to plan ahead for your family’s future while living the fullest life you can with them today.
This would include, perhaps, an estate plan, life insurance, a trust fund, and other measures to ensure your legacy – meaning your family and loved ones – are protected in the event of death. In our modern society, unfortunately, the government will absolutely rape your estate clean if you’re caught without a safety net after death, so this just makes common sense.
Live the year that Ted Kennedy just lived, but earlier in life, by planning for death if there are people who depend on you, and it won’t matter whether you’re hit by a bus or have slowly growing cancer in your brain which gives you just enough time to set up an estate plan and “sail your boat”. Then, if you do happen to become stricken with a fatal disease which gives you time to reflect before death, you can laugh at people who don’t see any change in your demeanor as you tell them, “I had great perspective all along – or didn’t you notice?”