“I’m Terminal” Is a Dangerous Use of Language
It’s common to hear someone with very advanced cancer say, “I’m terminal.” In the last stages of the disease, this acceptance of death is healthy and allows for a more peaceful dying process; the dying phase is a time to accept and make peace with dying. But identifying and attaching to a diagnosis or prognosis when there is still a chance of recovery can cause unnecessary additional suffering and is not conducive to health and well-being. In my training at the Simonton Cancer Center, I occasionally met program participants who referred to themselves as being “terminal” at a stage when it was still reasonable to hope for recovery. Perhaps you can see that this is a slippery slope because although it is important to maintain hope, it is also important to not become attached to getting well. Mindfulness practice offers a way to negotiate this complex terrain.
Living as Normal
Some people living with debilitating chronic medical conditions or life-threatening conditions are committed to going about their lives as if they were healthy, and this works fine for some people. Others of us can do this for a certain percentage of the time but are then struck down with fatigue, malaise, or some other disabling condition that makes living the life of a normal, healthy person impossible.
Although people with chronic illness would certainly like to live as everyone else does, the reality is that sometimes we can and sometimes we can’t. Still, a large percentage of us are able to have productive careers, a rich family and social life—and a lot of fun. We may simply have to do these things a little differently from the way healthy people do them, taking into account our limitations.
Vulnerability and the Illusion of Control
It is very frightening to think that no matter what we do to take care of ourselves, we are still vulnerable to serious medical problems. One time when I was trying on a new pair of shoes I got talking to a young woman who looked like a world-class athlete. I asked her what sport she competed in and that discussion led to my sharing about having been involved in ski racing in my teens and twenties, and the fact that I hadn’t skied since age thirty. She asked why I had quit skiing at such a young age, and I decided to tell her about the very debilitating connective tissue problems that had led to my giving it up, among other things. Whenever I get into a conversation like this with athletes, at some point they invariably want to know what caused all my health problems. I can tell by the way they ask that their concern relates to their belief that such things will never happen to them because they eat the perfect diet, exercise properly, get enough sleep, and manage their stress. The conversation always takes a negative turn when I explain that I was already doing everything right prior to developing serious health problems; they begin to look worried and the conversation ends abruptly.
Even if we do everything right, we cannot control our health, but we can learn how to de-fuse or disentangle from the types of thoughts that otherwise lead to fear of illness and death.
As my first Buddhist meditation teacher once said, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”