This was the news this month re Dame Tessa Jowell, a former UK Cabinet Minister.
Almost without exception, the media coverage I heard and read talked about her ‘losing her battle with cancer’ or her ‘brain cancer fight’.
These words bother me.
I’ve wondered for quite a while now whether when we talk about cancer in this way we put pressure on everyone who receives a similar diagnosis to ‘fight’.
And, then, when they do die, the implication seems to be that they’ve somehow ‘lost’ or ‘failed’ – and maybe didn’t try hard enough…
Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t seek appropriate treatment or be optimistic at all – it’s true that the survival rates for many types of cancer are much better now than they were even 10 years ago, especially when it’s diagnosed early.
But I’ve also witnessed several people who have continued with treatment, often with really uncomfortable side effects, far longer than was actually going to benefit them in order to demonstrate to their nearest and dearest that they are still ‘trying’.
We can get so caught up in the technicalities and routines of medical and other treatments that we forget about the other needs of the human beings at the centre of it all.
So I was interested to see a recent article in the Guardian by Nadia Khomami in which she quoted research by YouGov which found that:
“… a quarter of people with cancer
said they had not shared their thoughts about death and dying with anyone
due to the pressure to see themselves as a ‘fighter’.
More than one in four (28%)
said they found it difficult to talk honestly about their feelings around the disease,
and a similar number (28%) said
they felt guilty if they could not remain positive.”
In my experience this sort of pressure often causes people to ‘pretend’ for the sake of others and really gets in the way of any honest conversation about what’s actually happening and how we each feel.
Death and dying are tough topics, and we do tend to shy away from talking about them. And the more we shy away, the harder it becomes to even start.
We may think we’re being kind, but we could be robbing someone of a chance to fully express themselves – for the last time.
And this applies just as much to those who will be left behind as it does to the person who is dying – they both miss out on the opportunity to say to that other person just how much they love each other and how important they’ve been in each other’s lives.
So it’s still about being kind. But also realistic.
If we’re the people who will remain, we need to manage our own fear of loss in order to allow the other person to let go when they’re ready, when they’ve had enough, and facilitate, perhaps, a more peaceful and dignified death.
A ‘good end’ or , at least, the best one that is possible in their particular circumstances.
In a speech she gave to The House of Lords, Jowell herself said:
“… in the end,
what gives a life meaning
is not only how it is lived
but how it draws to a close…”