The best day for Christa Wilkin was also her worst day, when, at 32 years old, she became a new mom and cancer patient. With no warning signs, she was diagnosed with Stage 2B cervical cancer that had already spread to her lymph nodes. The tumor was discovered when she went into early labor with her son at 33 weeks, who ultimately saved her life. The harrowing ordeal has left her with lasting effects like infertility, but through her blog, she’s able to tackle tough cancer topics with grace and humor, shining a bright light on a gloomy situation.
“Where would you want to be if you were dying? It’s a morbid question, and emotionally laden, but it’s one that may be asked when you are diagnosed with cancer. When I picture palliative care, I imagine an old man, confined to a wheelchair, with thick wrinkles and scraggly grey hairs that stick out of his chin, being spoon fed Jell-O that jiggles as the spoon is lifted to his mouth.
I also think of grandparents who gift you their antique china sets or dining room tables when they die. Maybe it’s something you’ve always wanted, or maybe you have to tip toe in response, ‘It’s beautiful but we don’t have room’ or simply agree and stash it in the basement, never to see daylight again. It feels like I’m too young to ask myself these questions, such as who will receive my possessions, but it saves my family the grief from having to ask for me.
Then there are questions about who will take care of the kids, or pets, or both the kids and the pets. I found these to be the harder questions because I was forced to think about what would be best and put aside hurt feelings that might arise from loved ones who aren’t chosen as caregivers. Ultimately, your job is to do what’s best for your family and not make decisions to try to please others.
Making a will is important whether or not you have cancer. It answers these hard questions and saves your loved ones a lot of grief if you are gone.
But it goes beyond making a will.
It’s thinking about where you would want to be if you become sick (or sicker). At first, I fantasized about being somewhere warm. Maybe by a beach. There, I would hear the crisp splashes of the ocean, smell the salty breeze, and feel the warm sun as it lights up my face. But living in Canada, with winter being what feels like half the year, it wasn’t a very practical idea.
The bigger question is not so much where I want to be, but who I want to be with.
My family. My friends. But not everyone. There are some people who take care of you and others who you always find yourself taking care of them. I want to surround myself with those who take care of me.
It’s about thinking about whether you want a funeral. Personally I have a hard time with funerals. They are just so sad. I would prefer a celebration of life where there is a crap ton of alcohol and people swapping amusing stories, and a few tears, about me. Oh and music. Good music.
It’s thinking about what will happen to your body when you’re gone. I reckon a lot of people have considered whether they want to be buried or cremated. I always wanted to donate my organs or tissue to save someone else’s life, but once cancer metastasizes, donation is no longer an option, which makes sense. I wouldn’t want to give anyone cancer because they received a kidney donation from me that had microscopic cancer cells.
The scientist and teacher in me loves the idea of donating my body to students in science. Maybe my body will help medical students hone their skills so that they can save someone’s life in the future. Or maybe my body will help us better understand cancer or spur advances toward finding better treatments, or at least treatment that seems less barbaric.
Donating my body to a university puts me back in the driver’s seat to decide what I want to do with my body and makes me feel like someone still benefits from my loss. It’s not all for naught.
It’s about putting money aside so that your family isn’t left with hard decisions about where you will live, should you be unable to care for yourself, and how they will find the money to care for you. We save up for important things such as buying a house or going on a vacation. Saving up for the ‘after life” is also something to consider.
It’s about giving your loved ones a roadmap. Writing a eulogy is one example. I always feel bad for those tasked with writing a eulogy after someone passes. There is so much pressure to find the perfect words to capture who this person was and what that person meant to you.
Last year when I had time to myself, well I wasn’t really alone because I was among a hundred other strangers on a flight back from a wedding, I used that time to write my own eulogy. Sure, I drew some looks as tears spilled down my cheeks while I wrote, but the process was so cathartic for me. It forced me to think about what I would want my husband to say if he spoke about me. He doesn’t have to use the eulogy I wrote. He could use his own words, or not even speak at all. But it’s easier to edit a draft once it’s written, rather than trying to start something from scratch. I wanted to give him that option.
All of these questions, and more, are part of the palliative care process. We don’t often talk about death in our society. Even the word death, I find, is hard to say. We say euphemisms like, he ‘passed away’ or my sister is ‘deceased.’ We assume that we have time to ponder these questions, and for many of us, we do. We will contemplate questions about our care, years in the future, when we have more grey hairs on our heads (and chins).
But asking yourself these questions now is such a loving thing to do for yourself and others. You don’t have to wait for a life-limiting illness. You can take control over an outcome, that, for all of us is inevitable but seems less scary when you take the time to plan for it.
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