After a two-day vigil, six weeks of hospice care and six years of lows and victories managing cancer, my mother-in-law died. She didn’t lose. No tangible enemy bested her. She died. Later, a family member sobbed, “how could this great woman be taken down like this?” I thought for the 83rd time that week, as I hugged my husband right in his armpits, fuck cancer. Immediately, I regretted the thought. I’m done with that mantra. It’s graceless and violent and stupid, like a swaying middle finger behind the back of a lunchroom monitor.
The phrase “fuck cancer” has been hashtagged and normalized, bringing a previously taboo swear word to the lips of the most demure Catholic. It’s even the name of a great cancer site. Still, something bugs me about the #fuckcancer mantra that families and patients have used to find their anger at a disease that robs us of our health and the people we love. I mean, I get it, but I’ve given it some thought and realized this phrase is a bit like the aristocrats joke – the one free pass to describe our feelings in terms of rape and violence. “Fuck cancer in its eyeballs” might feel good to blurt out when someone you love is being ripped away from you in anguish and pain, but it’s not the right way to respond to anything. Nothing is accomplished with that reaction. I’m done with the phrase.
In fact, as with many things in life going forward, I’m going to talk about cancer in the footsteps my mother-in-law laid out – that is, with optimism, positivity, kindness. Forgiveness.
I can’t stay mad at cancer. It took our beloved mom too soon, yes, and caused her pain, of course, but it had the compassion to move into her liver instead of lingering in her bones for a more drawn out, painful end. Cancer gave us a heads up that the demise, which we all face, was coming. My mother-in-law took trips and fielded visitors in what seemed like an endless brigade of best friends. (This woman? This woman had friends. She had droves of devoted soulmates filing in for the gift of saying good bye.)
Why is death seen as defeat?
My mother-in-law didn’t lose. She wasn’t “bested” by cancer. She died on her own terms, surrounded by family-members telling story after story from her joyous, vibrant life, just the way she wanted. We all have to die in the end. It’s a fact. The trick is getting it right – long enough to say your goodbyes, short enough not to have prolonged suffering. The New York Times might call hers a “good death”. My mother-in-law wanted to be in her home with all who loved her and she was. Cancer didn’t win anything. The woman brave enough to accept death was the victor.
The end, while years too soon, was an oddly beautiful moment. It’s bizarre how much natural death is like childbirth. There is waiting, suffering, attending. There is an anticipated end to agony. In the last hour of her life, we felt very much like labor coaches as we whispered positivity and wiped away her occasional tear as she straddled somewhere between sleep and the great other side. The “death rattle” didn’t scare me. I knew she was working. She had work to do – death labor – and she did it. Her final moment was, in a sense, a victory.
It was not a defeat. My mother-in-law simply accomplished life’s final task.
This brings me to another thing I liked about her: She never shut us out. She brought us in. I feel strangely grateful I was allowed to peer into this personal moment and gain something of a model for how to die. In her last hours of coherence the night before, she told me her own mother-in-law was on her mind because she had witnessed her dying of the same cancer. I will (hopefully many years from now) think of my mother-in-law on my death bed, too. I want to face my death with the same bravery. I will not be pitied. I will fight if I have the opportunity, but I won’t stoop so low again as to rage with violence about a problem that needs to be solved with: money, science, awareness, prevention, industrial and corporate responsibility, government transparency, and lots and lots of hope.
Ironically in this age of over-sharing online where we live tweet our labors and ramble our innermost thoughts for pages for the consumption of anyone who clicks by, our society has a low threshold when it comes to family “in our business”. We draw boundaries. We don’t like drop-in company and we’d rather give a spare key to our neighbor than our in-laws. Usually death is shrouded behind hospital curtains and those who are actively dying, perhaps sensing cultural shame of death, “lose” their “battle” when no one is in the room.
I’m thankful for my mother-in-law for her bravery to bring me in tight, to showing me, up close, that death is merely the natural end of life. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. She was graceful and humble, and I will aim for that even in the language I use to talk about the cancer that robbed us of her.
Besides, she’d prefer a hashtag like, #OhZeeCancerMeansWell anyway.
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