Thursday, September 14, 2017

Giving up vs. letting go.


"She's going to beat this. She's a fighter."

When my mother was first diagnosed with terminal cancer, so many people -- well-meaning, I'm sure -- offered these words of support to my family and me. I know they didn't intend to hurt us and were probably just trying to be hopeful. No one wanted my mother to die. No one. We all wanted her to "beat" cancer.

But the reality was, her diagnosis was terminal. Cancer would most likely cause her death, barring some freak accident or other unforeseen tragedy should take her first.

Our family learned her cancer was in the latest stage very soon after her initial diagnosis, but it seemed others did not understand what it meant. I would explain to them that her diagnosis was much worse than we initially believed, but they'd still express that she could fight the cancer and be cured. These were confusing sentiments that at first brought a glimmer of hope, followed by that gut-sinking feeling you get just before every shelf in your world comes crashing down. I knew in my heart even the strongest people die from cancer, no matter how determined they are to outlive it. And I also understood that my mom's prognosis was very bleak.

Shortly after receiving the news that my mother had cancer, a wise woman told me that every person's cancer story is different, and no two are the same. She warned me that people would come crawling out of the woodwork to share the experiences their loved ones had with cancer. Sometimes, the outcome was a long life simply managing symptoms and having periodic scans. Other times, it was death. But, it would be important not to assume that because X happened to a friend's aunt that it would also happen to my mother. The "what-ifs" would make me crazy if I dwelt on them.

I often had to remind myself of this as my mom's health deteriorated and she eventually chose to enter hospice care. You may recall that I was quiet about it, and that was intentional. I chose not to share the information publicly for a number of reasons, even though you might remember that she asked me to write about her experiences with cancer on this blog. One of the biggest reasons I chose not to talk about it was I knew people would judge her, saying she "gave up" in her fight against cancer.

My mother was one of the strongest people I know. She was determined to finish whatever she started. She could move mountains. She wasn't afraid of anything or anyone. People knew they could count on Liz Haney to get stuff done, and when she fell ill, they counted on her to defeat her disease.  So, when she decided she was ready to die, I didn't want people to think my mom was weak.

See, there is this very public and widespread idea that if you have cancer, you better fight it with everything you have. We call people "cancer warriors" and assign them with the Herculean task of achieving remission as if it's somehow in their control. Oddly enough, we don't treat any other disease this way -- we don't require people to "fight" MS, Lou Gehrig's, juvenile diabetes or asthma. But cancer is a different story for some reason.

I have news for you: CANCER cannot be "beat" by sheer force of will. For my mom, it was never in the cards. But even when it is possible for a patient to recover, consider what it takes in order to become "cancer-free." Remission requires surgeries, intense medications, radiation treatments, tests, scans, and many other painful and taxing medical interventions to keep the patient well enough to eventually find themselves in remission -- IF it's even a possibility for that person. Often, the grueling side effects of treatment are worse than living with the disease. It's a LOT to ask someone to suffer through it just because we want them to live.

Sure, optimism on the part of the patient and their loved ones is crucial to enduring the horrific and debilitating effects of cancer and its required treatments. But there is very little that the patient, doctors, or anyone can control when it comes to cancer. It has a mind of its own and it's determined to grow and spread. It often does, and it takes lives with it. That is the reality here.

It's been eight months since my mom passed away. But she did not lose a battle to cancer. She wasn't ever in some kind of fight where the valiant win and the quitters lose. She was stricken with a horrible disease and she succumbed to it. And at the end, she decided it was time to let go. She believed there life beyond mortality, and she was ready to move onto the next phase. And that desire does not make her weak. It makes her human.

Her decision to enter hospice care and die with as little pain as possible while in the peace and comfort of her own home is hers and hers alone. Our family's support of her decision does not mean we allowed cancer to "win" or to take over our lives or do whatever else people claim it does. My mother was as sick as can be, in excruciating pain, unable to eat, walk, use the bathroom or bathe. How debilitated does a person have to be before hospice is "acceptable?" The answer is simple: it's the patient's choice, and no one else should judge them for that determination.

Likewise, if a terminally ill person does not want to enter hospice care, that is also their choice. They shouldn't be judged for wanting to live for as long as possible. Their life belongs to them and no one else.

We need to reconsider how we talk about cancer survival. It's important to understand that it's not as much within our control as we believe it is, and that it's a gruesome disease that requires the use of literal poison to even attempt to treat it. It wreaks havoc on people's bodies, and it doesn't matter how strong they are, nor how determined they are to get well again. It doesn't even matter how skilled their doctors are a lot of the time. Strong people can die, and dying does not make them weak.

I miss my mother every day. I still think to call her or text her several times a week. The pain that follows the realization that I can't see her, talk to her or be with her right now is starting to become less severe. Or maybe I'm just getting used to it. Either way, I'm thankful for that.

Of course, I wish she could've been healed. I wished and prayed and hoped and prayed some more that she would and well, it just didn't happen. God had a different plan for her.

But her death has taught me many important lessons about how to interact with those who are enduring similar situations. First, people can be quite insensitive when your loved ones are sick or dying. But, they can also be very kind, even more kind than you believed they could. So, instead of running my mouth when someone tells me their loved one has cancer, I can get to work and help them. I can offer a listening ear. I can cry with them when they feel all hope is lost.

Second, people can do everything right and still die, but that doesn't mean it's their fault. And, it's more important to respect and love people than it is to be right. So, even if I think I know what's best for someone who is going through this nightmare, it's really not my place to say it. The only thing they need to know is that they are loved and supported.

Third, cancer is not some enemy that you can defeat if you just fight hard enough. The fact is, cancer kills, and it doesn't care if you are an accomplished marathoner or a helpless child. And a person suffering with cancer doesn't need any added pressure to survive or "kick cancer's butt" or anything like that. If I hope for someone to achieve remission, is it because I want what's best for them and their family, or is it because I'm uncomfortable with the idea of them dying? Remember that remission comes at a cost, and treatment can be more unbearable than the disease itself.

How often do we think of the act of dying as "giving up" when maybe that person is just "letting go?" We are always supportive of those who choose to let go of what they can't control, let go of negative feelings, let go of toxic relationships and behaviors and so forth. A dying person knows their time is up and they're ready to move on. Allow them the freedom to do so, with dignity and grace and without judgment.


  1. I love you, lady. You're incredible.

    This post makes me think about something Stuart Scott said before cancer also claimed him, “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.”

    It's something I try to remember when I interact with people whose lives have been impacted by cancer.

  2. I really appreciate your professional approach.These are pieces of very useful information that will be of great use for me in future.



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