Dying – can it ever be a laughing matter?

When we think of the emotions surrounding death and dying traditionally we think of sadness, of fear, of emotional turmoil and of grief. I wonder if there might be another way of thinking about it. Obviously this won’t be for everyone and I respect however anybody going through this journey wants to feel. I do not mean to trivialise it, just to describe one of my coping mechanisms.

Chris and I were enjoying a quiet evening in together last night; not something that happens all that frequently these days with the busy lives we both lead. A lovely dinner and a couple of glasses of wine later and I asked “would it be fat to have another bun for pudding?” Chris replied to this without blinking an eye “yes but you’re dying darling so does it really matter?” We both then fell about hysterically laughing. It was one of those genuinely funny moments in life where you laugh so hard you cry and your abdominal muscles hurt. But how can that be? Some might say a joke about a 31 year old that faces the reality of her own mortality in the foreseeable future is distasteful.

Well I’d answer that question with the fact that I am a fun loving individual. I always have been. I enjoy a joke as much as the next girl and one way I have of coping with what my future holds is by using my sense of humour. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely wasn’t making jokes on day one but soon after I started to use humour to help me get through the day.

How does this manifest? Well anyone who works with me will know that my standard response to a “how are you doing?” question is a smiley “still alive and kicking thank you!” I constantly talk about “when I pop my clogs” or “when I’m pushing up the daisies”. I think some people around me were shocked by this attitude and language at first, but it’s amazing how infectious it is and how it normalises this huge life event that is approaching for me.

For example my boss recently asked “what are you up to this weekend Kate?” to which I replied “off to Amsterdam for a loved up weekend with the husband.” The exchange continued “you really do have a fantastic quality of life don’t you?” My response to this was “well apart from the fact I’m dying of cancer!” The boss “well yes I suppose there is that…” We both laughed. Mum shares the dark sense of humour. She bought me an expensive handbag a few months ago. When I said she’d spent too much money on me, her quick and witty reply was “well you won’t be needing your inheritance will you!”

Having a good laugh always makes me feel better and I am absolutely sure that my positive attitude has helped me to remain well without treatment for such a prolonged period of time. I really hope I can take the humour with me to my death bed and continue it right until the final moments of life. I was incredibly impressed by the Twitter response suggesting an appropriate hash tag for me to live tweet my final days and hours. Fellow tweeps have clearly picked up on my sense of humour with suggestions like #deathbedlive, #goinggoinggone and #toinfinityandbeyond. However I also received many tweets asking if I was serious. In answer to those people I am ‘deadly’ serious about it! I think it would be a very useful learning experience for everyone and you never know it might even trend!!

Cancer in the media

Please indulge me while I have a little rant. Have you seen the latest Macmillan television advert? The one where forlorn looking people are falling and kind looking nurses are picking them up. If not you can watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BGrskynlGs

I don’t know if it is just me, but I find this advert extremely patronising and presumptive. It is somehow portraying people with a cancer diagnosis as weak, which from my experience couldn’t be any further from reality. Some of the strongest, most vivacious people I know have cancer.

This brings me onto the language used by the media and charities when referring to cancer. It is always “fight”, “battle”, “warrior” or “brave”. These are words used to describe wars and soldiers and not in my opinion appropriate to describe a condition that will affect one in three of us at some point in our lives. When someone goes on to die from their cancer or as the media would put it “lose their battle” does this mean that they failed? In my mind this somehow lays blame with the patient and seems very unfair.

I have become much more aware of cancer in the media since my own diagnosis. In fact sometimes I feel completely surrounded and it can be rather suffocating. The most recent poster encouraging women to attend for cervical screening horrified me. If you haven’t seen it, the poster shows a cute little boy crying with the caption “my Mum missed her smear test, now I miss my Mum”. As far as I can see this is just emotional blackmail rather than helping women to make an informed choice about their own health.

The soap operas tend to portray cancer as an egocentric trip rather than a person with a health problem within their wider social context. This is illustrated recently with Brenda in Emmerdale who has just been diagnosed with a brain tumour. My first thoughts when I was diagnosed were not for myself but for my husband and my family, and how I was going to help them come to terms with what was happening to us as a whole; this is very different to how Brenda is dealing with her diagnosis by shutting her family out.

Of course cancer will always be in the media and so it should, but I think perhaps we as a society can think more carefully about how we portray it. How would I like it to be portrayed? Well, I think we need to see more normal people going about living their lives and coping with it because there is little alternative as a reflection of what is reality for most.

And when I die I will be turning in my grave if anyone says “she lost her brave fight”. I would like to be remembered as a fairly successful, fun-loving and ambitious individual, not as a loser…