Dear Family Advisor

I have cancer and am ready to let go, but my daughter wants me to fight.

Last updated:

August 08, 2009

I'm 78 years old, and this is my third bout with breast cancer. I just don't have it in me to go through all the treatments again. My daughter, who's 52 and newly divorced, wants me to fight. I know she'll miss me, and we're very close, but I also know she'll be fine -- she has two college-age kids. I believe that this is best for me, and I'm at peace with that. How do I help my daughter understand and even embrace my decision? I'd like this last year of my life to be something we can all treasure.

No man -- or woman -- is an island, and your situation is a good example of how the decisions we make affect others. I'm grateful you've come to terms with all you're facing, and I understand that you're choosing quality of life for your remaining time. You're thinking of your daughter, yet you've decided what's best for you. Your words express a sense of peace and serenity that will guide you well.

You and your daughter are in different places emotionally, and both of you have the right to your feelings. But instead of trying to get each other to see it from your own point of view, you could both work on respecting each other and loving each other just as you are.

I do respect your choice not to continue with cancer meds. But I hope you'll at least investigate your options. Cancer medication has really evolved, and if it's been a few years, you might find that there are more and better choices available to you than you had before. It's possible that advancements that are promising yet not too onerous warrant a try. You owe it to yourself and your daughter to know that you've done all you can. Exploring the current set of treatment options might not change your mind, but your daughter will appreciate your efforts and it's apt to give both of you a stronger sense of peace.

Whatever you decide, please do try not to argue with her. Recognize that she doesn't want to lose you and at the same time, hasn't experienced what you've endured. In time, she'll probably stop trying so hard to hold on and will come to a place of peace as well, but until then, you're just going to have to quietly live your decision.

If you haven't written your daughter and even your granddaughters a letter yet, I suggest you do. It's so much easier to find the words to express your feelings, including your requests and your concerns, on paper. It lets you take your time and edit until you say exactly what you mean in a loving way. In turn, your daughter can take her time mulling it over, coming to understand what you're going through. Be honest about your own fears. She needs to know your deepest heart. What a gift this will be -- a letter or even a series of letters, recordings, or video -- whatever way you choose to share yourself.

Your daughter and others may still fight you as they work through the inevitable stages of grief that are actually a path toward healing. Don't let this bother you. Your job is to stay present and spend your time in ways that bring you a sense of wholeness. Tell your daughter what you'd like to do or how you'd like to be with her. Be specific: You'd like to spend a weekend together at a vacation spot you enjoyed before. Or you'd like to return to your childhood home for a visit. Or you'd simply like to enjoy your own home and visit with a few friends when you can.

If you haven't involved hospice yet, I encourage you to do so. Hospice isn't just for you -- although it will offer you a great deal -- it's also for your family. Hospice bereavement counselors, chaplains, nurses, and home health aides are trained in how someone's terminal illness affects the family. They can help your daughter deal with her emotions and fears, and reassure her that you're making a good decision.

Even if your daughter comes to respect your decision, though, she may not fully embrace it. You're her mom, and some people "fight" the dying process more than others. It's not right or wrong; it's just their way. Listen to her if she needs to share, or encourage her to reach out to those at hospice or her own faith community or friends. Also spend time with her and others not talking about all this. Your choice is not that unusual, and with the help of hospice, they'll begin to see your experience as quite normal and will most likely open their minds and hearts and receive the support hospice has to give.

I encourage you and your daughter to check out a book, When the Sun Goes Down: Planning the Funeral of Your Life, by Betty Breuhaus. Two other good choices: Dying Well, by Dr. Ira Byock, and Good Grief, by Lolly Winston. These books are not as much about dying as about celebrating life. Maybe they'll help your daughter start seeing this as a precious time to honor your life, all you are, all you've done, all the people you've loved. She may begin to open up and grieve a little now -- a good grief, the kind that centers on the sweetness of life and those we love even when it hurts. The two of you have quite a journey ahead of you, and I have no doubt that you'll find your way and become closer during this extraordinary time.