The End of the Cancer Journey: What I Learned

a peaceful place

My late husband’s death, three years ago, was the most traumatic experience of my adult life, up to that point.

For eight years, Jim and I lived with, and fought against, a malignant brain tumor. That cancer journey shaped our relationship and our life together. It especially defined the last 15 months of Jim’s life.

When the cancer returned, after four years of remission, he and I fought hard to beat it. When there were no longer any treatment options left, the journey shifted to helping Jim die, with love and peace.

Ultimately, the brain tumor took him away.

His death represented the culmination of the cancer journey. An end that I had lived in fear of for years.

The journey Jim and I shared was difficult, painful, and traumatic, particularly the last 15 months. It’s taken me three years to work through the pain and the loss.

It’s a healing journey I’m still on.

Today, I can honestly say: despite how everything turned out, I’m grateful for the experiences I had with Jim. The cancer journey changed my life. It helped me grow into the person I am today.

Some lessons I learned

Here’s a brief list of some of the lessons I learned, during the last months of Jim’s life. It’s by no means comprehensive. A list like this can never be complete, not as long as I continue to live, learn, and grow.

About life

I learned …

Life is short. Jim was nearly 28 when he was originally diagnosed. For years, he fought hard to live, really live. And he lost the battle at age 36.

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Not to take life for granted. Not to waste it away. Not to go through the motions or to sleep walk. Not to do things simply because it’s the way everyone else does it. Or because it’s the way people think you should do it.

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The value of making the most out of your life, out of your experiences, and out of living. Watching the person you love die puts into sharp focus what’s truly important: being real, being true to yourself, and living an authentic and meaningful life.

About living

I learned …

The importance of being in the present moment. For months, I worried about Jim dying, about not having him there with me anymore. Yet, he was still there.

Often, I had to remind myself: enjoy the time you have with him right now, make the most of it. Stop letting time slip away by worrying about what will happen later. I learned that staying in the moment is where life’s at. Right here, right now.

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You can find humor, silliness, and laughter in the middle of the most difficult situations. And that it’s okay, and even good, to do that. It helps with the heaviness and it shows that there’s still living going on, even in the middle of dying.

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All rules, all “shoulds”, all “have tos”, all “musts”, go out the door when someone you love is dying. During the last weeks of Jim’s life, he drank as many Dr. Pepper fountain drinks as he wanted. I made him a root beer float every night. We had his favorite, Chinese food, for dinner several times a week.

The house was a mess. Daily things went undone. None of that mattered.

We focused on the little pleasures in life that meant the most to Jim. Again, it was about living in the moment.

About dying

I learned …

How hard it is for many people to deal with pain and death. And that they’ll do almost anything to avoid it. It’s one of the toughest things we have to face in life.

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People care, they want to help, when someone is losing a loved one. Yet, many people don’t know how to help. They want to make things better. But that’s not what it’s about. Just be there. You don’t have to say a word. You don’t have to do a thing. Your presence is all that matters. It says so much.

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Doctors are human. They may put on a strong front and act objective, but like the rest of us, they feel. Through Jim’s doctors, I learned that they care deeply for their patients. It was hard for them to watch Jim die too.

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When someone you love is dying, the best thing you can do is be there with him (or her). Help him take that journey at the end, so he doesn’t have to do it alone. Let him know: it’s all going to be okay.

About love

I learned …

Love is far more powerful than cancer or death. Even in the face of terrible difficulties, it can grow, get stronger, and continue to live on after your loved one is gone.

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As much as you love someone, as terrified as you are of losing him, at a certain point it stops being about you. When the person you love is suffering, it’s about doing what’s best for him, no matter how much it hurts you. Instead of holding on tight, it’s about letting go.

For years, I was scared of Jim dying. But, in the end, as I watched him suffer excruciating pain, as his body began to fall apart, I realized that if I loved him, I had to let him go. Death was a better alternative, to end his suffering.

And that was more important than my fear of losing him.

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Jim, through his smile, his laughter, and his silly sense of humor, simply by being himself, touched the lives of so many people, in countless ways throughout his 36 years on this earth. I wish he could have fully appreciated the love others felt for him at the end of his life.

About myself

I learned …

I was much stronger than I realized. That I could push through my pain to be there with Jim until the end. Our love gave me the strength to be by his side, when others struggled with the reality of facing his death.

I can face my worst nightmare. I can live through the pain. I can heal. And I will be okay.

I can handle anything life throws at me.

* Photo credit: Image from Flickr by Dan-Scape.co.uk