Following on Kenneth Roy's
unwelcome news some weeks ago that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, I was hoping, nevertheless, that we had not heard the last from him. Accordingly, I was particularly interested to read his piece in SR
last week. Why? Because I find myself in a similar position to Kenneth.
At the end of March 2018, my skin suddenly turned yellow. I had no pain but, reluctantly, I consulted my local medical practice. Somewhat to my alarm, I was sent as an emergency patient to the local hospital. To cut a long story short, after a fortnight in a surgical ward, umpteen tests and a considerable degree of polite equivocation, I was told that I had incurable cancer of my bile duct and that I had a life expectancy of 'some months.'
Having enjoyed remarkably good health throughout my adult life, this news was extremely challenging. I had never actually met my own doctor. My last spell in hospital had been at age seven, when my appendix was removed. I vaguely remembered being prescribed an antibiotic by my dentist about 30 years previously when I had a tooth abscess. That was the last time I had taken any prescribed medication. I had assumed, somewhat arrogantly, that I could easily live to be 100. Yet here I was, age 75, suddenly having to come to terms with my own mortality.
Being told I was terminally ill brought on a form of bereavement. I passed through the well-known stages of that process, including anger, disbelief and denial, until passing on to acceptance. So far, readers will notice nothing greatly unusual about my case. However, when I add to the mixture that I am an active retired Church of Scotland minister and that I had been looking after two vacant congregations for the previous two years, this may change perception. What had I, as a minister, been in the habit of saying to individuals and families in similar situations and, most crucial of all, did
I, believe it for myself?
As time went on, I became determined that, without sounding ultra-pious or self-righteous, I would use my remaining 'months' to set a good example to friends, family and acquaintances of how to deal with terminal illness in a positive manner. Hopefully this would be helpful not only to people of my own faith and religious practice but also to those of different faiths or none. Others must judge the success or otherwise of this process.
My spell in hospital re-enforced my personal admiration for those who work in the NHS, often under very demanding circumstances. I have no complaints about my medical treatment. However, what did greatly surprise me was the tendency of the medical staff to avoid the 'c' word (cancer) or the 'd' word (death). A kindly surgeon told me that my scan was showing a 'mass' that was blocking my bile duct. One of his colleagues preferred to use the word 'growth'. It was left to a sympathetic specialist cancer nurse, who came to visit me on the ward, to openly use the 'c' word for the first time.
It came as a relief to me when the fact of my cancer was more out in the open. At least I could be honest with friends and family. After a metal stent had been successfully fitted to my internal plumbing system, I was allowed home.
In hospital, I had received many visits from kind people, which I greatly appreciated. However, once home, I was in no mood to receive visitors. I needed time to process all that had happened in such a short space of time. Fortunately most people did understand, although a number seemed unwilling to accept facts. I was still receiving well-intentioned get-well cards and comments such as 'You might be surprised. It's amazing what doctors can do nowadays.'
Death remains the great taboo in modern society. As a parish minister, I was often taken aback at how ill-prepared many people are for this event. Today, although just over 50% of people tick the 'of no religion' box, that does not mean they are all card-carrying atheists. In many cases people don’t know what to believe and are somewhat relieved to be able to access the services of a humanist celebrant. We generally avoid the word 'die'. A person is said to have 'passed away' and his/her remains are 'resting' at the funeral parlour. Society tends, unless the deceased is very elderly, to see death as a tragedy rather than a natural process.
There is a common belief that a sudden and unexpected death is the 'best way to go.' I would challenge this somewhat facile presumption. To be aware that there is possibly only a short time left certainly concentrates the mind wonderfully. It also gives unique opportunities. With a degree of hesitation, I might even suggest that it is a privilege, especially if appropriate end-of-life care is available. It opens a window of opportunity to review one's life and even discuss it with family and friends. What are the things I have done well? What aspects of my life were less successful? What kind of funeral do I want and who will inherit my property. Whom should I contact to inform them about my current situation? Are there people I need to forgive or who I wish to forgive me? Do I want to be resuscitated?
If approaching death can be seen as part of a natural process and declared openly, it lifts a burden off everyone involved. It may even change perceptions. Until my health broke, I was always adamant that I wanted a private funeral. My somewhat cynical attitude was that if people wanted to say anything pleasant about me, they should say it when I was alive rather than bring a wreath to the funeral. Having received so many messages of goodwill, I now realise the selfishness of that attitude. Family and friends may well want to celebrate the more positive aspects of my life and why should I deny them that from beyond the grave?
Like Kenneth Roy, I have written my autobiography within quite a short space of time. This rough and ready work is not intended for publication although I have given PDF copies to a few long-suffering friends. Like Kenenth's autobiography it lacks an ending, for obvious reasons.
During the past few months, I have received chemotherapy. This is no cure but, in the words of the consultant oncologist, it might buy me some extra time. However, in addition to conventional medicine, I have been supported by complementary therapies as well as some medicinal products which are far from conventional. Friends, and even people I scarcely know, have sent me good wishes, positive energy, assurances of prayers, and even lit candles on my behalf. I am convinced that all of this has been a major factor in my holding my own. I cannot prove it, of course, and have no wish to try.
Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned is to live every day to the full, to value those who value me and be thankful for all that I have experienced over the past 75 years.
This piece was written before Kenneth's death - Ed