I used to wake up each morning wondering if I had Alzheimer’s yet. I dreaded the thought. Who wouldn’t? I used to imagine the torment of dealing with cancer; the diagnosis, the surgery, the chemotherapy, the radiation, losing my hair! I no longer think that way. I am no longer holding my breath waiting for the diagnosis that will lead me to my imminent death. What happened? I am now a cancer survivor; that is, after two years, my gynaecologist told me that I can now come in for a checkup once a year, rather than every six months.
Let me backtrack. I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in October 2017. After denying the symptoms for three months, I finally went to my family doctor, then to the gynaecologist, then for an ultrasound examination, then a biopsy. The diagnosis: endometrial cancer, stage 2. I asked the medical students who board with me while doing their electives at Vancouver General Hospital about the cancer, the treatment and the prognosis. The most encouraging of their comments was, “Well, if you have to have cancer, that is the best kind to have.” Really?
My son came from Ontario to be with me for the surgery, a hysterectomy. My gynaecologist was excellent. I experienced one bad night in the hospital. I wanted to get out of the hospital so badly that my blood pressure went sky high (white-coat syndrome). I had to sign several waivers in order to march out of the hospital – against their advice. I never looked back.
That was on a Wednesday. On Thursday morning, a friend picked me up and we attended the advanced Hebrew class at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, as usual. On Saturday, I drove to the supermarket. On the way to the cashier, I bumped into my gynaecologist, Nancy Mitenko. She had a surprised look on her face, so I said, “Hi, it’s Dolores, your patient.” “Oh,” she said, “I know who you are, what are you doing here?” We both laughed. I felt great.
My physical trainers and my family knew of my situation but I did not tell my friends and associates about the diagnosis, the surgery or the radiation until it was almost over. I discovered that the reactions of most people to the situation is fear, for themselves, as they empathize with me. I read the look on their faces as panic and dread. It made me want to comfort them. At that point, I did not have the patience to tend to their anxiety. I knew exactly what they were feeling because I used to experience that dread when I thought about cancer.
Several months later, February 2018, I began radiation therapy at the cancer centre at VGH – 25 sessions, convenient parking in the building, pleasant technicians who, generally, were on time with their appointments; the hardest part was drinking the four glasses of water before the procedure. The treatments were painless, but, they did cause some side-effects, which were manageable. This month, at my two-year checkup, Dr. Mitenko told me that I am clear. “See you next year,” she said.
I have been on an intense learning curve, researching cancer treatments, analyzing my feelings about what had happened, dissecting my behaviours and my capacity to proceed under duress and, especially, I have given much thought to dying and death. The idea of dying does not frighten me anymore. We all will die, it is just a matter of when and how we will approach the process. I now assume that cancer may eventually reappear in my body, why not? The denial I experienced has been banished. I accept my death as inevitable – but I have taken control of the process.
I have given instructions to my sons to donate my body to the University of British Columbia Medical School’s body donation program, having completed all the forms necessary for that to happen. I have joined the organization Death With Dignity, which has a chapter here in Vancouver. I attended a meeting of DWD and was informed of the MAiD program, Medical Assistance in Dying. I have read about the requirements of the MAiD program and now know of several doctors who participate in it. I made an appointment with my lawyer in order to update my will and the various documents related to my requests for treatment and care if I should become incapacitated. My four sons have been advised of all these procedures and have the most up-to-date documents.
I am not in the least bit sad, or anxious or depressed. Rather, I am proceeding to do exactly what I wish to do with my life. I have a plan. I feel that I now have some control of my life and my dying and my ultimate death. This is empowering.
I recently celebrated my 80th birthday with a large, extended-weekend celebration including dinners, a party and a brunch. Three of my four sons were there, as well as my daughters-in-law, and five of my nine grandchildren. The most important element of that weekend for me was to watch the relationships between them deepen and become more meaningful. I am grateful to have lived this long. Anything more will be a bonus. I have accepted my mortality, I do not feel greedy, I do not ask for more. I am happy to welcome each day, to contribute to my family, to volunteer for the causes that I feel are important, to make a difference wherever and whenever I can. Death is my friend, and accepting the inevitable has freed me to be the most that I can be.
Dolores Luber, a retired psychotherapist and psychology teacher, is editor of Jewish Seniors Alliance’s Senior Line magazine and website (jsalliance.org). She blogs for yossilinks.com and writes movie reviews for the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library website.