How Often Do Cancer Survivors Think About Death and Dying?

How Often Do Cancer Survivors Think About Death and Dying?

Living & Loving with Prostate Cancer

Think back to the day you received your diagnosis of cancer. How soon did thoughts about death or dying come to your mind? For me, thoughts about death occurred within seconds after I received the news I had prostate cancer.

What’s surprising to me is how often I think about death seven years later, even though my last PSA test came back undetectable.

I decided to ask the community of men on my Prostate Cancer Pre & Post Surgery Facebook page how often they thought about death and dying.

Here’s a sample of answers I received:

  • Just passing thoughts.
  • I’m five years out and I think about it almost daily.
  • I don’t think about it any more often than before I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
  • Most days.
  • Every day.
  • I think of death too often.

The first thing I noticed was the variety of answers I received. I expected everyone to say they thought about it multiple times every day.

The answers I received suggest there’s a wide variation in how often cancer survivors think about death and dying.

The frequency of thoughts about death and dying is less important than the conversation we engage in with ourselves each time we think about dying.

My initial thoughts about death were terrifying. I imagined spending months in agonizing pain that no amount of medication would successfully manage.

I imagined my life savings would be wiped out by high deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses. I was convinced I wouldn’t live long enough to walk my daughter down the aisle, become a grandparent, retire in good health or travel with my wife.

I have a long list of friends, family and acquaintances who died within the year of receiving their diagnosis. Therefore, the possibility of surviving cancer never entered my mind.

I expected to go down hill rapidly and die within the first year after I received my diagnosis.

Every time I engaged in self-talk about dying, it ended the same way. I’d feel distressed, fearful, pessimistic about the future and overwhelmed with grief and sadness.

I wanted to protect my wife, so I kept these conversations to myself. I believe she wanted to protect me from her fears, so we coped with our individual fears together, but alone. In doing so, we deprived ourselves of the comfort and support we had to offer each other.

There are healthy, life-affirming ways to think about your own death, but where can you find them?

The Bible helped me overcome my fear and pessimism. These three verses were life changing:

  • Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12).

A diagnosis of prostate cancer taught me to number my days. Since then, every part of my life changed.

Before my cancer diagnosis, if you said to me, “You’re going to write two award-winning books, write articles and cut your work schedule down to three days a week.” I wouldn’t have believed you. Yet, that’s exactly what happened.

  • O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (1 Corinthians 15:55)

This verse is a powerful reminder to me that death isn’t the last chapter of my life.

  • We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8)

This verse reminds me of where and with whom I’m going to spend eternity.

I’m no longer distressed when I think about death and dying. I’m reminded to use my remaining time wisely. My relationships, my priorities, my values and how I use my time, skills and talents were all transformed.

Your thoughts, feelings, past experiences, attitudes, religious beliefs and your personal history coping with loss will all impact the way you speak, comfort or cause distress as you think about your mortality.

***

Note: Prostate Cancer News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Prostate Cancer News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to prostate cancer.

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Rick Redner received his master’s degree in social work from Michigan State University. He has spent many years working as a medical and psychiatric social worker He is the author of the award winning book I Left My Prostate in San Francisco-Where's Yours? His second book Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Erectile Dysfunction and Penile Implants won the Beverly Hills International Book Awards in Men's Health in 2016. Additionally, the book was a winner in the 2017 IAN Book of the Year Awards.
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