This morning I commented on a post that had made its way to my Facebook page. The person posting had recently discovered that her Stage IV colon cancer could not be wiped out and that she would be on a treatment of one kind or another for the remainder of her life. As you can imagine, this was devastating news to her, for she was hoping with all her heart and mind that after the treatments she’s had, the cancer would be beaten into remission. Unfortunately, such was not the case. Her doctor’s expiration notice, like millions of us receive each year, understandably is causing her enormous angst. I remember the day that I received just such a expiration date and how overwhelmed Bobbie and I were by those three little words, “you have cancer!” Who wouldn’t be? I began to think about how I might help this woman come to peace with her prognosis, and it dawned on me that the prescription to ease her pain can be found in my book, “Embracing Cancer – Embracing Life: The Guide For The Journey Beyond Diagnosis.” So I decided that I would begin posting sections of the chapter entitled, “The Journey From Dread To Joy: Conquering The Fear Of Death.”
This then is the first of several sections from that chapter that I will begin posting today and everyday, until the entire chapter has been posted here, on the Mantle Cell Lymphoma page and the Colon Cancer Survivors and Warriors page. I hope this helps.
PART I. Let’s Get One Thing Perfectly Straight – You’re Not Getting Out Of Here Alive.
Let me repeat that ladies and gentlemen, someday you’re going to die. There’s an old saying that’s really only half right, “There are only two certainties in life: death and taxes.” Well, the tax thing I’m not absolutely positive about, but the death thing, that’s for sure. It’s been proved billions of times before you were born and it will be proven billions of times after you’re gone. It’s as true in Europe as it is in Asia, as true in Australia as it is in Africa and South America and North America as well: everybody dies. You can check out Antarctica if you like, but I think it happens there as well. Out with the old and in with the new, isn’t that how another old adage goes? I don’t have absolute proof, but I’m willing to bet, based on what I’ve observed in the short time I’ve been on the planet, along with what I’ve read, that we human beings have been looking for immortality for as long as, well as long as there have been human beings. Five hundred years ago, or thereabouts, King Ferdinand of Spain sent Ponce de Leon to the new world in search of the Fountain of Youth. I doubt that the king was hoping that old Ponce would return with some of that magic water so he could party harder; no, it was all about immortality! But if you ask me, I think the search really began shortly after Cain killed Abel. According to the story I read, Cain runs home to tell Adam and Eve that Abel won’t wake up, no matter how hard Cain hits him. So they rush to where Cain left Abel “sleeping” and discover he’s down for the count. Cain looks at Adam, Adam looks at Eve and Eve looks at Cain, all thinking the same thing, “Now, that’s not cool. Don’t think I want to do that.” And so the search was on for a fountain, herb, injection, food, or exercise—anything that could make us mere mortals, immortal. But alas, no matter how much time and money gets dumped and pumped into the effort we still face the mystery of death.
Immediately after I was diagnosed I began to think about death, my death, almost to the point of obsession. I wanted so badly to just push those thoughts out of my mind and forget about them forever, but as you probably know if you’ve been told you have an expiration date, that’s easier said than done. Other things that needed my attention, like my treatment options, my wife, family and friends, my business, my short and long term goals, very possible declining health, insurance, my financial future, got neglected while I dwelled on death. The fear of dying greeted me each morning and laid down with me each evening; you may find your fear of death treats you similarly. My fear was at my side when I awoke to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. I started to ask myself a bunch of largely rhetorical questions like: wouldn’t it be nice if death wasn’t resting its head on my pillow each night as I fell asleep? Wouldn’t it be better for me to wake in the morning and feel at peace, ready to do battle with cancer? Wouldn’t it be better to master death rather than have it hold me hostage? My answer to these and other questions was, “Yes.” Your answers to these questions would very likely be the same.
Assuming we would like to sleep well, feel at peace and master our fear of death, we must begin by trying to understand what seems to be our inborn fear of death. Keep in mind as we move through this discussion that overcoming your fear is essential to your future happiness as you deal with mortality; keeping thoughts of death and dying in a dark, unseen corner of your mind is out of the question now. Once you’ve heard the words, “You have cancer,” those safe havens are gone forever. We begin our journey with a brief examination of how religion and culture play a part in our relationship, or more accurately our lack of a relationship, with death.
How The West Does Death
Now it is not my intention to turn this book about embracing cancer and life into a full-throated argument for or against a cultural or religious belief, but I do feel strongly that a brief examination of how two of the world’s great religions, Christianity and Buddhism, confront living, death and dying may impact how one looks at his or her, perhaps not impending, but inevitable death. I know that analysis has helped me; perhaps it will help you as well. Let me begin by stating that I am not a religious expert by any means although I was raised a Catholic (Church every Sunday, Catechism every Saturday morning), considered entering the priesthood—up until the day I kissed Linda Alexander in seventh grade—attended Catholic high school, have actually read much of the Bible and have received all the sacraments with the exception of Extreme Unction. That being said, I do not attend religious services or belong to any religious organization. As a matter of fact, I consider myself decidedly unreligious.
So let’s take a short expedition into the concepts of dying, death and the afterlife as many Christians are instructed. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.” This was my nightly prayer from the earliest days I remember and my introduction to death and dying. My mother would have me kneel at the side of the bed, my fingers interlaced in front of me and I would recite that prayer; I remember how the words frightened me even then, filling me with a sense of foreboding and terror. Of course my mother didn’t realize the effect those words had on me. If she had, she probably would have never had me say that prayer again. I’m quite sure my mother had no idea that that particular prayer’s origins can be traced at least as far back as the early 1700’s when infant mortality rates were extremely high. Parents literally had no idea if their child would still be breathing at the dawn of each day. What better way could there possibly be to assure a place in heaven then to have the child ask God to personally take care of his or her soul each evening?
Before long, about the time I began tying my own shoes, I was introduced to the two places one could go when they died, heaven and hell. Actually, in those days there were four places Catholics could end up: heaven, hell, purgatory and limbo. We were taught that little babies, those who had not yet had the original sin washed away by baptism, would go to limbo if they died. Limbo was not quite as nice a place as heaven, but it sure wasn’t the fiery inferno that was hell. Then there was purgatory. That was the place one would end up, for some undetermined portion of eternity, if they died with a venial sin on their soul at the time of death. I think purgatory may have had darkness but not fire, or perhaps a thermostat that just wasn’t calibrated correctly; I just remember not wanting to go there. I’m frightened just thinking about ending up in one of those places and we haven’t even discussed hell yet! I was taught that if you died with a serious sin on your immortal soul you would go to Hell for eternity. That’s it. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Hell, a place of unspeakable horror: burning fires, clanking chains, and gnashing teeth. Not for a week or a month or a year, but forever. Believe me, that talk scared me straight, right up until the moment I kissed Linda Alexander.
I’m making light of this in some respects, but I can honestly say, these truths affected both my conscious and subconscious mind with respect to death and dying. When I was twelve, Sam Rayburn, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, died of cancer. Watching the television news that evening, commentator Walter Cronkite described Rayburn’s death this way, “Sam Rayburn, Speaker of the House, Democrat from Texas died of cancer today. He was a man who put his pants on one leg at a time.” Having never heard the term, “A man who put his pants on one leg at a time,” I assumed Cronkite was reporting that Rayburn died of cancer because he put his pants on one leg at a time. For weeks afterward I struggled to put both my legs into my pants at the same time. Give it a try sometime, you’ll find it’s much harder than it would seem. You may recall stories of your own as you travel from fear to peace; perhaps you’ll find them as amusing now as they were terrifying then.
Even as I grew into adulthood and later became a husband and father, there was not a single point where my Christian upbringing and education helped me understand death, even though I was on a collision course with it since I took my first breath. So what did I do about my fear of dying? I took every thought of death, wrapped it neatly, well perhaps not neatly, but certainly tightly, and shoved it back somewhere in the deepest crevice in my brain only to be exhumed very briefly on certain occasions such as the death of a loved one or former classmate. There it lay, gathering dust, undisturbed until I heard the words, “You have cancer.”
Now, I really do want to help you find the peace you deserve when it comes to your death, as I’ve been able to find mine, so I think a little dip into Buddhism might be helpful. Because Buddhism encompasses a variety of concepts and teachings it’s difficult to determine an accurate number of adherents, although Buddhanet.net estimates that there are 350 million Buddhists. A total that does not include Buddhists living in China, which if considered, may increase the number to well over one billion. Buddhists do not believe in the existence of either heaven or hell, but rather the perfecting of oneself over many lifetimes or reincarnations. The soul is ever changing as it becomes more enlightened and perfected with each successive lifetime. The soul is not a separate independent entity, as with Christianity, but rather an interlaced part of the universe. Unlike Christian adherents who face the possibility of eternal damnation for their transgressions, Buddhists believe that the act of perfecting oneself in this lifetime will result in greater happiness in this and future incarnations; whereas, willful neglect will result in unhappiness in this and forthcoming lifetimes. Perhaps you’ve heard the word “karma” used in reference to someone who will or who has paid a price for his transgressions. Karma comes directly from Buddhist teachings. Buddhists believe that preparing for death is a lifelong practice; this is the part that may help you, as it has me, come to peace with your own mortality.
In my opinion, Christianity gives you a set of rules to follow in order that your eternal soul might reach “paradise,” while, at the same time, neglecting to guide your organic consciousness toward an accepted and peaceful death. Buddhists recognize the intertwining of both the consciousness and soul and believe each must be prepared properly in order to achieve a peaceful death. I, for one, know that the better I’m prepared for a situation or an event, the more peaceful I become. Wouldn’t you agree with that assessment concerning your own life? If so, then it stands to reason that in order to have a sense of peace regarding death, we must make preparations. I’m not talking about buying a burial plot or contacting a funeral home, I’m talking about preparing our consciousness for death.
Now I’m going to give you some tips and exercises that I’ve used to prepare myself for my death. Remember, “Practice makes perfect,” so use these tips and exercises often to prepare yourself. I use some of them daily even now. The journey will take you through the sanctuaries of Intellectual, Emotional and Spiritual Peace and while there’s no timetable for reaching any of these retreats, the sooner one makes his way through, the sooner one can be filled with near continuous joy. In the long run, it’s useless attempting to avoid this part of your journey. If you want to be on the right path you must enter at the trailhead. This is the trailhead.
(Next: Part II. Intellectual Peace.)