How I found unexpected joy after being diagnosed with terminal cancer

Michael Goldman
A reader, 89, shares a surprisingly uplifting account of living with terminal cancer - Elsa Rose frere

Yippee! I know when I am going to die! Well, not exactly – the oncologist’s recent prognosis is a year to 18 months. I have wondered for some time just how my end will come – I have long dreaded having a heart attack or a stroke – and now I know roughly where I am.

I was pleased that the oncologist did not recommend chemotherapy or any treatment other than omeprazole, which works by reducing the amount of acid that the stomach produces. So my mind is now set on the ultimately fatal effect of my stomach cancer. At the moment I feel surprisingly euphoric.

If my customary mood of mild depression and anxiety returns, I expect that my worries will concern preparations to make things as easy as possible for my wife Susan, my three stepdaughters and my executors. My financial affairs are in reasonably good order and I have chosen readings and music (Schubert’s Piano Trio No 2) for my humanist funeral.

However, there are files that I have not yet cleared, not to mention all the possessions I have accumulated, and my ‘office’ is a mess. The upside of my condition is that, because I need to restore at least some of the 2st that I have lost recently, I feel able to indulge my sweet tooth, including with cake. And not just cake: I am looking forward to cooking an old favourite I have avoided for years – cauliflower cheese.

I was surprised earlier this year when a dear friend, suffering from cancer, tried to keep the news to herself. For my part, I do not care who knows. I welcome support and sympathy – provided that it is not too mawkish. It infuriates me when doctors and scientists boast that we are all living longer.

Longevity is not a good thing in itself – witness all those poor souls living with dementia or needing 24-hour care, with all the indignity that involves. It depends on the quality of life, and mine is not at all bad for an 89-year-old.

 I have had a good innings and I never thought that I would live to such a venerable age.  I have never had any ambition to prolong my days on this earth.  Life is much like roulette – stop when you are winning.  

However, even though I am winning at present, the road ahead is bound to continue downhill – arthritic joints getting worse, chronic tiredness and lethargy, slower walking over increasingly limited distances, lack of desire to shuffle round art galleries, reluctance to leave my comfortable brown leather chair.

One New Year's Eve some while ago, I was asked for my hopes for the coming year and I said, ‘A quick and painless death.’ Since reaching the age of 80, which I celebrated with a lunch party for some 50 friends and relations, I have been looking for the exit. However, I stopped seeking it after getting to know, and subsequently marrying, Susan.

The wedding took place three years ago, when she was 73 and I was 86, before my recent diagnosis. I had never been married before and Susan has transformed my life. Her ‘half-full’ perspective is very good for me, though I oppose her well-meaning but unrealistic prediction that I am good for another 10 years.

Since my retirement, I have tended to have a project of some sort in hand – writing an essay on the Anglo-Irish poet James Henry, another attempt to read Dante’s Divine Comedy, planning my next trip to Europe.

Now, my latest project is facing death. If nothing else, it involves a whole programme of organ recitals, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm used to describe the medical conversations with contemporaries that characterise one’s declining years.

All this may be superfluous, as I may die tomorrow, in which case it would be a pity to miss the Brexit machinations, games of Scrabble with Susan, conversations with neighbours’ cats.

On the other hand, the possibility of lengthy survival does not appeal to me. So, onward into my new hobby – preparing to die.

Michael Goldman was educated at the University of Oxford, completed his national service in the Royal Artillery and worked in marketing. Now retired, he plays bridge (badly) and Scrabble (well). He lives in Blackheath, London