Time to Live, Time to Die
Kenneth Blank, M.D.
University of Pennsylvania Medical Center
Last Modified: March 11, 2010
Jean Cameron was an invaluable social worker on the palliative care unitof the Royal Victoria Hospital, Montreal, when she was diagnosed withterminal breast cancer. "Time to Live, Time to Die" is her account ofcaring for dying patients while herself battling the hardships of aspreading and incurable cancer. Ms. Cameron insightfully recounts herexperiences with the physical and psychological burdens imposed by hercancer, how the disease changed her relationships with family, friendsand working colleagues, and how she summoned the courage to overcomethese obstacles and continue counseling patients and families on thepalliative care unit.
Ms. Cameron's candid writing of her thoughts and fears upon learning of her cancer will likely comfort other cancer patients. She writes, "At thebeginning there are so many fears...fear of unrelieved pain and suffering,fear of losing control, fear of becoming a burden physically, emotionally,or financially, to those one loves..." Twice her cancer forces Ms. Cameronto face her greatest fear, that of losing the ability to think clearly,decisively and independently. Once, when the overwhelming pain from hermetastasis causes her to seek comfort in the form of mind-alteringnarcotic medications, and a second time when she realizes that the cancerhas spread to her brain. As she accepts her dependence on narcotics andthe knowledge that the brain metastasis will not simply disappear, shewrites, "slowly and gradually, then, came the realization that nothing isreally as terrible as the fear of it."
This lesson, and so many others she shares with the reader, are pricelessinsights intended as much for those without a terminal illness as thosecarrying such a diagnosis. She explains how her cancer forces a newperspective on everyday life: "One realizes which things in life areimportant and which are trivial. One learns not to take anyone or anythingfor granted. Each day becomes important. One also learns not to takeanything to seriously..."
"Time to Live, Time to Die" is a perceptive and poignant account of theexperiences and observations of an extraordinary women as she cares fordying patients while fighting a terminal illness herself. Ms. Cameronshares the lessons she gained as she and her patients face "the simple,universal, inescapable confrontation with death."