Death and Cancer Loneliness

Death’s in the good-bye. Anne Sexton 

I recently had an experience I can’t get out of my mind. At a Pathway’s Women’s Cancer Teaching Project panel presentation, a co-presenter shared her story of living, and dying, with cancer.

She told us the facts of her cancer, which I won’t share here to protect her privacy. The point of her story, however, was not the cancer. It was the fact that the cancer should have statistically killed her years ago and was going to kill her soon enough. It was just a matter of time.

The certainty of her cancer was accepted. What she was struggling with was how to approach the end of life. She noted that we give showers and parties to welcome life, but we have no way to even talk about death. She wanted to discuss it with her family. She wanted to talk about her final days, plans for her funeral, and saying good-bye, but her family members rolled their eyes and changed the subject when she tried ever so gently to bring it up. She didn’t blame them, of course. She noted that she should start cleaning out her house now while she was able, but couldn’t bring herself to do it because she was in denial herself.

She spoke with grace, humor and honesty. She assured us that, while she was still able, she was enjoying life by traveling and spending time with family and friends. As I listened intently, I felt a level of tension and focus in the room I’ve never felt before. I knew as I listened that I would never know until it was my turn how I would handle the end of life. Would I have her level of acceptance and strength? Will I know how to lead my family though such a loss? How will I say good-bye?

After the presentation we spoke and I told her about a book I read a few years ago, Chasing Daylight: How My Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life, by Eugene O’Kelly. The book is a memoir written in the three and a half months between Mr. O’Kelly’s terminal brain cancer diagnosis and his death. In it, he makes hard decisions about how to spend his remaining days and say good-bye to everyone in his life. It was a hard book to read, but I will never forget reading it and I hope it is of help to her.

Because I can’t possibly relate to what she is going through, I would never presume to understand her experience. All I know is that, although I’ve written about the loneliness of cancer before, I’m sure I witnessed the epitome of cancer loneliness during her presentation. With the recent death of two breast cancer bloggers and news that yet another woman I know has been diagnosed with breast cancer, the losses of cancer never let you forget that we are all chasing daylight.

Survival > Existence,



Marie Ennis-O'Connor's picture

A post that really hit home

A post that really hit home for me today Debbie. The hardest part for me in dealing with my mother’s death from brain cancer is that I never got to have any conversations with her before she died. The period of time from her diagnosis to death was 3 weeks and she had lost the power of her speech in that time. We never told her she was dying and we still don’t know if she knew or not. I feel as if there is a lot of unfinished business around her death because of this. Thanks for opening up this discussion – it is such an important topic to bring into the open.

Debbie's picture

Your Courage to Talk About It Inspires Me

Dear Marie:

In the past six months, I’ve supported my best friend whose father died after a long illness and “experienced” the loss of your mother and Rachel and Susan. Sitting next to my co-presenter, I had the overwhelming feeling that, while I couldn’t possibly understand what she was experiencing, I was standing in line, awaiting my turn to find out. None of us can ever be an expert at dying, or supporting a loved one who is dying, but we will all eventually be called upon to do our best. I’m sure you did your best and, for any good mother, that is always all she wants from her children.

Survival > Existence,


elyn jacobs's picture

It’s Time to Go

Great post Debbie. When my mother was at the end, each day she would ask me if the pill I was giving her would be the one to let her die (pain meds). I would tell her I can’t do that, but after some time, I assured her that if she was ready to go (she was) all she needed to do was close her eyes and go to sleep…with that she did, and with one last flicker, was gone. No more pain, no more misery. However, what really struck me prior was her path. One by one she made peace with all that was bothing her so she was truly able to go in peace. Beautiful.

When my mentor, Sue Memhard was beyond return, she told me that it was time to go, that she was a butterfly just waiting to be released so she could soar to her new life, where she could continue her mission to help others.

I only hope that when it is my turn, I can be this graceful. Thank you for this meaningful post. hugs, Elyn

Debbie's picture

Your Memories Give Me Comfort


Thank you so much for sharing these beautiful memories.This is such a hard subject to talk about, but your comment has truly given me a richer perspective. Many hugs to you, too.

Survival > Existence,


Nancy's Point's picture

Wonderful post, Debbie.

Wonderful post, Debbie. It takes me back to when my mom was dying. Before she got really bad, she did give us some directions on what she did and did not want us to do on her behalf as far as treatment and end-of-life decisions. She did make some funeral arrangement requests as well. It was comforting when those times came to know we were doing what she wanted. Death and grief are such neglected topics in our society. We seem to be really afraid to speak about either one and that’s too bad. The book sounds pretty amazing. I’d like to read it some time.


Debbie's picture

I’m So Glad That We Are Talking About It Now


I like knowing that, although it was hard to talk about, those conversations gave you comfort later because you knew you were honoring your mother’s wishes. We’re so scared to face it, but with courage comes great comfort. You really should read Mr. O’Kelly’s book. I treasure it because it is so brutally honest about facing death and saying good-bye.

Survival > Existence,



Tory Zellick's picture

Definitely hits home Debbie.

Definitely hits home Debbie. Sadly, death is as much a part of life as being born, but as you mentioned, something western society has a tendency to shy away from the topic. I was fortunate to come from a family who spoke openly about death, the dying process and final wishes. My grandfather even took the time to personally hand us the heirlooms we would be receiving after he passed…just so we could ask any questions we may have about the item. My mother made it perfectly clear that we were NOT to have a funeral, but we were to have a Celebration of Life. We honored her wishes by waiting several months after her passing, allowing everyone to grieve, and then throwing a party of a lifetime. If her passing hadn’t been so unexpected, we probably would have thrown the party sooner so she could have attended.

Thank you for the book suggestion. I’m sure it will be a difficult read, but well worth the tears.



Debbie's picture

What a Precious Gift You Received


Your comment reminds me of walking with my grandfather to the shed in his backyard, where he pulled out a beautiful, oak-framed mirror. He knew I liked antiques and wanted me to have it. He told me it belonged to his aunt, who had left the house, the shed and all its contents to him. I was a young teenager, but I knew this was a special moment as he passed on this family heirloom. Of course, it now hangs proudly in my home and is one of my most treasured belongings.

I don’t know if he was contemplating his death when he handed on that mirror. I only know that he loved me and showed it by gifting me that piece of his life. You obviously come from a long line of very special people too.

Survival > Existence,



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