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Cancer Care Chronicles
November 2018

Terminal Cancer and Death—On Grief

Author Affiliations
  • 1Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
JAMA Oncol. 2018;4(11):1483. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2018.3883

I walked into my home for winter break of my sophomore year at the University of Virginia at the same time the phone rang. My dad’s doctor had called to discuss his recent test results. Dad had been experiencing new shortness of breath while walking up stairs. After the phone call, my dad went for a conspicuous walk around the block. My mom, heroic throughout the ordeal that awaited us, sat me down on the couch to talk: dad was dying of prostate cancer.

A few months later, after one of his irradiation sessions, there was an understated reception in honor of one of my dad’s clinicians, and dad insisted that we stop by to show our gratitude. At the gathering, one of the honoree’s colleagues offered a short, heartfelt speech: “This disease is so relentless, so terrifying, so debilitating. As an oncologist, it can just beat you down. But for years, you’ve come in and done your best job to treat and fight cancer. You don’t do it for the thanks. For you the reward has been the fight itself, the daily work, both the lives saved and the dignity preserved in death.” The grief, it occurred to me, was not limited to the patients and their families.

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