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Stan’s Stuff - Dying a ‘good’ cancer death

By Stan Stewart.

I think dying in your sleep is overrated. It used to be my preferred scenario. Not anymore.

Fifty-four years ago, I participated in a clinical education course at one of Melbourne’s leading hospitals. A mind-expanding eye-opening experience.

The course had been developed by a consortium of Protestant churches in conjunction with Melbourne’s leading hospitals. The course took place in a huge hospital and for most of it we were integrated into the hospital staff. I will share two unforgettable experiences.

Some very sick patients would ask to be anointed. For many of the course participants like me this was not part of our tradition. To get us up to speed on this practice, we were given a one-off show-and-tell session on anointing and how to obtain ‘holy oil’.

The Anglican priest who, with a serious demeanor, led this session, showed us how you turn olive oil into holy oil. It was quite a procedure. It amounted to a 30-minute service of prayers and readings. At the conclusion of the presentation, there was a question time. Seized by a spirit of devilment, I asked – “Once the olive oil has been made ‘holy’ how long does it remain ‘holy’”? Our instructor paused; then his considered reply was, “A week, if it’s kept in a refrigerator”. Back then I could hardly suppress a chuckle. Now, whenever I think of it, I laugh out loud.

For a month of the course, I was assigned to the Cancer Ward. This involved going on ward rounds with doctors and specialists and being part of debriefing sessions. Occasionally, we (junior doctors and me) would have a session with the specialist who oversaw the ward. He was a larger-than-life professor with a dry wit. He was also a heavy smoker. He enjoyed shocking us.

I think he set us all back in our chairs when he started talking about ‘a good cancer death’. He commenced by talking about the fact that death was inevitable. He acknowledged that some cancer deaths are horrible. However, he said that was not the case in most cancer deaths. He went on to speculate on the various ways we might die. At the end he said he would like to die ‘a good cancer death.’ The room was silent. He had captured our attention. Here are his comments.

With many terminal cancers the time from detection to death is around four months. During this time various care procedures and appropriate drugs can keep the patient relatively pain free, comfortable, and lucid. In these situations, death, when it comes, will be peaceful. Then he went on to explain what he sees as the advantages of this kind of dying.

A major bonus he said is ‘time’. There is time to get one’s life in order – to identify and settle accounts, legal matters etc. More important even than this, there is time to say goodbye to friends and family, to have reunions to say goodbye. Often this time is used to mend fences, reconcile with estranged persons, relatives, and others.

He then contrasted this with sudden death - heart attack or accident or simply passing in your sleep. Invariably, what is left behind is a jumble. For a start where are the legal papers, bank accounts, insurances etc.? Then, what about human relationships? No goodbyes, no reconciliations, no last words etc. He finished by saying a ‘good cancer death’ was the way he wanted to go. I know this professor enjoyed shocking us, but I am now of the opinion he made a lot of sense.

My brother and I were estranged for forty years, no communication, hurtful innuendos, discomfort, and tension at family gatherings. His children who had suffered as I had suffered from his harsh judgments, knew he was dying. He knew he was dying. His children decided to make ‘reconciliation’ a family project. This involved visits, outings, and family occasions. When they could see it was working, they took on themselves my situation - brother to brother healing. It happened. They created the occasions in which it could happen. We met. We embraced. We talked. The following months were very precious to me - and to him. Sudden death would have robbed his children and me of many experiences of intense personal and family joy.

Life is a gift. Death and dying can be a gift. I am totally focused on living. Dying is not on my radar – but sooner or later it will be. I am hoping I won’t exit suddenly leaving a mess of details that others will have to unravel. But, more than that, I am hoping to have time to say goodbye. Here I am thinking of saying helpful, life-giving goodbyes to family, friends, irritants, and jackasses who have been part of my life story.

Caption: Stan admiring the view.


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