How It Feels To Grapple With Death
Three months ago, I stood on the stage of a sold out theater at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix and delivered my TEDx Talk, “Confronting Death to Live a Fuller Life.” In it, I shared my story of getting diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in the fall of 2018, explored what I gained on the other side of my own death anxiety, and offered three easy things the audience could do to start living like there’s no time to waste.
At the time, I was in a weird cancer purgatory where I wasn’t in treatment anymore – I’d wrapped up 15 months at the end of December 2019 – but I wasn’t in remission and wouldn’t be until I was a couple years out. I was eager to put cancer on a shelf for a while and find a new normal so I could move into a new phase of my life. On stage, I shared my fears of the cancer coming back, silently spreading in my body unbeknownst to me, only to come back stronger than ever and kill me. I even mentioned this in my first blog post here about my Triple Negative Breast Cancer diagnosis.
Well, my worst fear came true.
After six weeks of deteriorating cognitive and physical functioning in March and April of this year, I waved the white flag of surrender and told my Oncologist I needed to get checked out. Four days later, a brain CT revealed a metastatic brain tumor the size of a lemon that I was walking around with for God knows how long. Due to the swelling in my brain, they admitted me on the spot and I had emergency brain surgery to remove the tumor less than 24 hours later. Thankfully, the surgery was a complete success and doctors have called my recovery nothing short of miraculous.
The bummer? My cancer’s Stage IV Metastatic now. It’s incurable. Terminal. When I look at my Life List and see “BEAT CANCER – one and done” I know I will never be able to check the box as complete. I lost. And this is a tough pill to swallow because, like many of us battling this disease, I see myself as a fighter who’s done everything in my power to conquer it to no avail.
In my TEDx Talk, I talked about “inviting death to dinner”. I recommended that instead of avoiding the topic of death because of the existential anxiety it creates, we should talk about our fears of dying with people we trust, subscribing to the POV that if we give the fear a voice, we can take the power out of it.
Now thanks to the lemon, I’m forced to put my money where my mouth is. I’ve got to walk my own talk now that I’m face to face with the reality that thanks to my now-metastatic cancer diagnosis, I may not live till I’m 80 (although that’s the plan) and cancer could be the thing that kills me long before that.
I’ve got to be honest – I’m scared. I don’t want to die anytime soon. I’ve got too much life to live! And I keep obsessively thinking about my potential end, should it be from this cancer. Will it be a game of whack a mole, with me getting scans regularly, finding evidence of cancer, treating it locally until it disappears only to pop up somewhere else in my body? And at the end, will the cancer attack my body, breaking it down until it can no longer withstand the beating, weakening me until the fight in me is gone? Like a frightened child, my six-year-old self stands there scared and alone asking, “Will it hurt?” I’m overwhelmed with fear, panic, and terror.
But then strangely, I have moments when I find myself at peace with the whole thing. Other times, I’m pissed I got dealt these cards. Sad when I think about not getting to live till I’m 90. Grateful at least I don’t have to wait for the other shoe to drop. I’ve hit the ceiling and now I just have to pivot to learning how to live with metastatic breast cancer instead of fighting it – because it won, and bargaining is off the table. Today, that still stings.
I expect it will take some time for me to process this new reality, which is why I ping pong between all the emotions right now like I have emotional ADD, unable to focus on one for very long. My hope is that with time, I’ll settle into some form of acceptance, although I know I’ll still cycle back through the stages of grief because it’s not a linear thing.
Grappling with this diagnosis is my work.
Motivating people to maximize their moments is my purpose.
Acceptance is my desired destination.
No matter what happens, I am still in awe of this beautiful, intense, messy life that continues to keep me on my toes. What a wild ride.
Alison Hadden is a marketing executive, veteran speaker, lifelong adventurer and cancer warrior living with metastatic TNBC. A TEDx Speaker with 15 yrs of experience engaging audiences on stages across the world, Alison is now excited to share what she believes is the most important information of all – how to live an intentional life focused on human connection, joy and gratitude through her work at @notimetowasteproject.