How long does any of us have left?

As a doula I have worked with a number of people who have been been aware that they have only 3 – 6 months left to live.  I have also worked with people who don’t want to know how long they have left, often saying that they’d like to take each day as it comes.  Many doctors are wary of giving a prognosis as they know there is so much uncertainty in how an illness progresses but they may also feel the need to forewarn patients that they may need to get their affairs in order.  If pushed they will try to give the patient and his/her family some indication of whether it is days, weeks or months.  But this week I met a young woman who is aware that her slow-growing inoperable tumour will probably give her 3 – 5 years of life.  And it made me wonder how you make sense of this.  Is it too soon to start planning the end?

I’m not sure any of us really feel we are guaranteed our three score years and ten.  Sometimes it is so hard to imagine a future in which we are old whilst it is also impossible to imagine a world that doesn’t have us in it.  So what would knowing you “only” have three years left mean?  It may seem premature to tell friends and  family.  You may not feel comfortable blowing all your savings on that bucket list as you still have to budget for those years to come.  Maybe the hope of a miracle cure being discovered is enhanced by the fact that three years is a long time in medical science.

But maybe it is also a mistake to think that you will have those years.  Most of us know that whether we have a serious illness or not, we should live for today – carpe diem and all that!  And just because you are dying of an incurable illness doesn’t mean that you wont be hit by a bus – life (and indeed death) can be cruel like that.  The harsh drug regimes of many treatments are a risk in themselves:  my brother nearly died of an embolism when his cancer treatment made him bed bound and a clot travelled to his lung.  I’m glad to say he survived and is still with us 15 years later.

My client is struggling to come to terms with her prognosis but we are working on some of the easier, practical stuff like making a will and talking about her fears of how the illness will progress.  We are working towards her accepting that death is on the horizon but it doesn’t need to dominate her every thought.  Maybe this should be true for all of us.


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