Looking Back While Planning Your Forward

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“Time is non-linear. I’ll always be with you.”
My dad repeated many times to my mother, brothers and me when he learned he had terminal brain cancer and approximately six months to live. I learned many valuable lessons from my father in his final months. I witnessed true courage and what it means to have a “good death” and to “die on your own terms.” I learned that when you are given a death sentence, there are different ways you can react and spend your final days.

I was paralyzed upon learning this news, but not my father. He immediately sprang into action planning his “good death” taking advantage of the time he was still lucid. He devoted energy to looking inward and outward and having deep emotional conversations with us. He determined his treatment plan, where he wanted to die, and what he wanted his funeral to be like. He organized his finances and sold his medical practice, making sure no stone was left unturned. With this, he gave us several gifts: space to grieve, delivery of last communications, and not being haunted over whether or not we were honoring his wishes.

When invited to write an article about a terminal cancer diagnosis, I immediately thought of my father. While writing this has been very emotional; my wish is to share the lessons I learned to help provide some
comfort and structure in a chaotic and scary time.

The Final Act Of Living is Very Personal
There is no wrong or right way to have a good death. A good death largely depends on staying true to your truth, your desires, and how you want to depart. You alone get to make that decision. Important questions to ask yourself: What does a good death look like for me? What do I need to do to have a good death, on my terms? What are my terms?

Looking Inward
You may be experiencing lots of emotions – or none at all. Jumbled thoughts of the past and the future may be spiraling in your head. It will be helpful to express these feelings and work through them with a trusted professional.

Understand Your Diagnosis And Treatment Options
It’s imperative to be clear on what your personal goals are and have them align with your chosen treatment plan. Do you want to live as long as possible at all costs? How much pain are you willing to endure? Familiarize yourself with all of your options and create an action plan. Share with your family how you would like to proceed so they can best support you. Consider meeting with a palliative care team and find out what hospice services are available to you.

My friend Jay Westbrook, Clinical Director at Compassionate Journey and end-of-life expert, outlines several key questions to consider when developing a treatment plan:

  1. How will this affect my survival time? How long will it extend my life? Days? Weeks?
  2. How will this affect the quality of my life? Will there be pain? Will I spend hours in treatments? Will I need lots of time to rest and recuperate?
  3. How will this affect my functional integrity? With the extra time the treatment affords me, will I still be able to enjoy life?

Discuss the options with your doctors and insist on hearing all the options.
Within each option, it is important to understand how the different treatments will affect you.

Complete Undelivered Communications
Speak your truth in a way that feels good to you. Have you told your partner how deeply you appreciate him or her? Have you told your children how proud you are? Thanked a mentor or friend? Apologized for any wrongdoings? Delivering these messages are a gift for you and your loved ones.

Settle Your Professional Affairs
If you own a business, will you sell it or scale back so someone else can take over? If you are an employee, is it time to wrap up your job so that you can focus on your health?

Determine Your Legacy
Does your family know where all of your important documents are? Have you decided whom you want your finances and prized possessions to go to? I cannot stress the importance of having a will and living trust that outlines how you want your estate to be disbursed. It’s very important to let your loved ones know in writing so that they can honor your wishes and avoid any potential conflicts.

Plan Your Funeral
Do you want to be buried or cremated? Where would you like to be buried or have your ashes spread? Who do you want to speak at your funeral? Do you want a religious or secular service? Share with your family so they can honor your wishes. If it doesn’t matter to you, let them know that too.

Learning you have terminal cancer can be one of the hardest and most emotional things to hear in the world. I hope my words can help bring some solace and direction to help navigate this next stage of life.

By Ilana Shapiro Yahdav, MPA, ACGRS

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