Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Facing Your Own Death

It is hard not to think about death in my business. Often I have pondered on my porch, Poe-like, how I would cope with the knowledge that my death was scheduled to occur in the near future. Would I abandon my patients immediately, and retire? Would I follow the Kubler-Ross steps in predictable fashion - or as an iconoclast, first accepting the inevitable, then becoming irreconcilably angry? How could I, or anyone, continue to interact with friends and family?

We are all so proud of our enlightenment and insight into human life, a product of modern collegiate and post-graduate education - but human death? Most of us cannot fathom the concept of our death. Our ordinarily brilliant minds clang with terror when considering the image of it. Such fear I believe is unhealthy because it robs us of the power of understanding - by that I mean a mature contemplation of death that can lead to proper planning for the future, or a deeper appreciation of the blessings surrounding us - in short, a richer life.

Fear of dying therefore seems to be hidden inside many of us - myself included. My career as a cancer specialist would seem to only increase my angst about death, since I see it every day, yet it was actually relieved when I met a patient who showed what it means to face the end with courage.

The last days of this patient, whom I shall call Mark, are worth sharing with anyone who is searching for a way to cope with a life-limiting illness. Mark was diagnosed in his thirties with a rare type of pancreatic cancer that took his life within six years. We initially thought his tumor could be resected, but at the time of surgery he was found to have tiny but widespread liver metastases. Mark's chance for cure was lost on the day he planned to be rid of his cancer. Although he lived for years after that, it was always while taking various chemotherapy regimens that often left him pale and bald. Eventually his liver metastases became resistant to all treatment, and it was time to move on to supportive care.

Mark was now faced with his upcoming mortality - the most profound experience in human life. What was his reaction to this inconsolable news? As his doctors, nurses, wife and family began to despair, he surged ahead with strength I had never before seen in a dying patient, and may never again. Mark faced his death with fortitude, grace, and a calm determination to carry on with his duties as a manager, husband and father.

St. Francis of Assisi, while hoeing his garden one sunny afternoon, was asked what he would do if he were suddenly to learn that he would die before sunset that very day. He replied, "I would finish hoeing my garden." This too was Mark's answer to the Spectre: "I shall keep living my life on my terms until I feel the grasp of your cold hand." He continued to drive himself to work. After arriving at the office he would rest for several minutes, gathering the strength to get out of his car and walk. Emaciated, with a faltering voice, he carried his load day after day, until he finally collapsed. Mark died two days after his last day at work.

Mark died three years ago, yet he still lives - inside of me. He has become my afflatus, my inspiration on living a life not measured by years, but by deeds. If there is one thing I learned from him it is this: life is only fulfilled when the mind and body are in motion. As long as I can stand and think, I will keep moving - see patients, laugh at jokes, wrestle with my sons, walk the dog, meet my wife for lunch, call old friends - get out and be a part of this great world, not wail in my chair how unfair it all is.

As St. Francis also said, "O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled...as to console." This should be the prayer of every oncologist.




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At 1:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many of our modern drugs have harsh side-affects and cost the “earth”, so the next time you come down with a cold or the flu or chronic stress, why not try a gentle alternative that costs next to nothing?

Instead of immediately forking over large amounts of money for over-the-counter drugs, go to the kitchen cupboard and see what you can find to relieve your symptoms including chronic stress.

Here are some helpful hints for chronic stress …

A simple hot compress applied to the face is very soothing to those throbbing aches and pains of a blocked sinus, while a few drops of eucalyptus oil on a handkerchief can provide welcome relief for similar conditions. While supplements of vitamin C, D and zinc will shorten the lifespan of a common cold, a hot lemon drink is also extremely good. And be sure to cuddle-up in bed when you have a cold, as it will make the body sweat out the germs.

Cool lemon juice and honey are a great soother for a sore throat and gives the body much-needed vitamin C at the same time The juice of one lemon in a glass of water is sufficient. Melt the honey in a little hot water for ease of mixing.

A smear of Vaseline or petroleum jelly will do wonders for those sore lips and nose that often accompany a cold.

A 'streaming cold' where the nose and eyes water profusely, can respond to drinking onion water. Simply dip a slice of onion into a glass of hot water for two seconds, then sip the cooled water throughout the day. Half an onion on the bedside table also alleviates cold symptoms because its odor is inhaled while you sleep.

People prone to catarrh may find that chewing the buds from a pine or larch throughout the day will clear up their condition in just a few days.

Do you suffer from sore eyes? If your eyes are sore from lengthy exposure to the sun, try beating the white of an egg and then spread it over a cloth and bandage the eyes with it. Leave the preparation on overnight. Soft cheese (quark) is also a good remedy for this condition.

For those unpleasant times when you suffer from diarrhea, two tablespoons of brown vinegar will usually fix the problem. Vinegar can be rather horrible to take, but who cares! The problem is more horrible. Vinegar can usually be found in most people's cupboards, so you don't need to worry about finding someone to run to the shop for you in an emergency.

Sleepless? Instead of reaching for sleeping pills, which can quickly become addictive, try this: Drink only caffeine free tea or coffee starting late in the afternoon.. Go to bed earlier rather than later, as being overtired tends to keep people awake. Make sure the bedroom is dark and quiet. Use only pure wool or cotton sheets and blankets. Polyester materials can cause sweat and make you thirsty (if your child constantly asks for water throughout the night, this could be the reason).

And don't watch those scary movies just before retiring! If you still can't sleep, make a tea of lemongrass or drink a nightcap of herbal tea containing chamomile. It's easy to grow lemongrass in your garden or start a flower pot on the balcony for ease of picking. Simply steep a handful in boiling water for five minutes. Honey may be added for a sweetener.

Of course there will be times when you do need modern drugs, so if these simple remedies don't have the required affect, be sure to see a health care professional.


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At 4:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rhodiola Rosea is the latest natural remedy to join the arsenal of natural anxiety and stress (post traumatic stress syndrome) reducers.

Rhodiola Rosea, also known as Golden Root, is a native plant of arctic Siberia. For centuries it has been used by eastern European and Asian cultures for physical endurance, work productivity, longevity, resistance to high altitude sickness, and to treat fatigue, depression, anemia, impotence, gastrointestinal ailments, infections, and nervous system disorders.

The first recorded medicinal applications of rodia riza (renamed Rhodiola Rosea) was made by the Greek physician, Dioscorides, in 77 C.E. in 'De Materia Medica'. Rhodiola Rosea has been included in official Russian medicine since 1969.

Despite its long history, the Western world has only recently become aware of the health benefits of Rhodiola Rosea. It has come to the attention of many natural health practitioners because of studies which tested its affects on combating anxiety and stress.

Rhodiola Rosea is considered an adaptogen. This means it has an overall stabilizing effect on the body without disrupting other functions. Its ability to normalize hormones may be effective for treating depression and anxiety.

Studies of Rhodiola Rosea show that it stimulates neurotransmitters and enhances their effects on the brain. This includes the ability for the brain to process serotonin which helps the body to adapt to stress.

Since adaptogens improve the body's overall ability to handle stress, it has been studied to identify it's effects on biological, chemical and physical stress.

A study was performed to test the effects of Rhodiola Rosea when stress or post traumatic stress syndrome is caused by intense mental work (such as final exams). Such tests concluded that using Rhodiola Rosea improved the amount and quality of work, increasing mental clarity and reducing the effects of fatigue.

The effects of Rhodiola Rosea have also been tested on stress and anxiety from both physical and emotional sources. A report by the American Botanical Council states that "Most users find that it improves their mood, energy level, and mental clarity." They also report on a study that indicated Rhodiola Rosea could increase stress tolerance while at the same time protecting the brain and heart from the physical affects of stress.

This report included details of studies which highlight the overall health benefits of Rhodiola Rosea.

The generally recommended dose is 200-600mg/day. The active properties should be a minimum 0.8 percent salidroside and 3 percent rosavin.

It is important for consumers to know that Rhodiola may be sold using other species that do not share the properties of Rhodiola Rosea, post traumatic stress syndrome, or at ineffective strengths for treatment. Anyone with depression or anxiety should also check with a health professional when treating these symptoms.

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