Coping With Cancer: End-of-Life Issues

By Margaret Nyman

October 19, 2009

Why is it so hard to talk about end-of-life issues? After Nate’s 14th and final radiation treatment today, we met with his doctors and signed off. They’ve done everything they can for him, and our questions have all been answered, at least to this point. Saying goodbye was not sad, though, since it means we no longer have to drive from Michigan to Chicago and back, five days a week. Nate was thoroughly exhausted after today’s treatment but was pleased Lars had chauffeured us and had shown interest in inspecting the massive radiation machine worth $3,000,000.

We made it back to our Michigan front door just as a Hospice Home Care nurse was arriving for our official sign-up. Pat was efficient and experienced, plowing through a stack of paper work quickly. Although she addressed her presentation to Nate, he sat facing her with eyes half closed, worn out from the morning.

Toward the end of her explanation of services, she said, “Now we come to the hard part, the living will.” Pat waited patiently for the words “living will” to sink in. Then she said, “The question is, if you stop breathing, do you want us to resuscitate you by using a respirator?”

Nate didn’t have to think very long. Without saying a word, he shook his head “no.”

I rephrased the question and then said, “Are you sure?”

Again he didn’t say a word but with a somber expression nodded his head “yes” and reached for her clipboard and pen.

Sitting with us and listening to this question and their father’s answers were Lars, Linnea, Klaus, Louisa and Birgitta. “I’ll need two witnesses to sign as proof that Mr. Nyman’s signature is his wish,” she said. At least I think she said that. My ears were ringing and my vision was blurring.

Lars and Linnea stepped forward to sign under their dad’s curvy signature. As I became weak on the sidelines, both of them demonstrated great strength under enormous pressure. As for me, I was lost in the picture Pat had just described.

All of us cling to life. If things are going well, we eagerly want that to continue tomorrow. If things are going poorly, we hope tomorrow will be better. For us, the days are not getting better, and no one is telling us they might. My new question is, when can we start talking about heaven? When will it not seem like I’m pushing Nate away to talk about his leaving us?

Tonight, sitting on the edge of his hospital bed and holding his hand, I thought it might be time to crack open the door to eternity. As we do each evening, we quoted Scripture together. John 14 was on my mind, a message of comfort spoken by Jesus to his best friends:

“Let not your heart be troubled: you believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”

Nate closed his eyes, repeating only a word or two with me, but he made no objection and didn’t furrow his brow. I think the time has come to lift the ban on talking about his going away and shine a spotlight on his brightest hope. The truth is, he will go there soon, and there is no better place for him to be.

Guest contributor Margaret Nyman chronicles the 42 days after her husband Nate, a patient at Rush University Medical Center, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Read more posts by visiting the Coping With Cancer section or subscribing to the RSS feed. Her personal blog is at

Leave a Reply