Published on: March 31, 2024

Vandana Mahajan writes:

“Don’t you get depressed? Cancer care is such a sad space to work in. You are surrounded by so much pain, suffering and death. All this must weigh you down.”

I have heard such statements often since I started working in Palliative care. People have this notion that palliative care is a sad and depressing area of health care.

In the early days such statements would upset me a lot and I would try explaining to them that it’s not depressing to work in this field. With time, I have learnt not to get perturbed by these wrong notions people have about palliative care.

Now, when someone asks me if it’s a depressing field to work in, I smile back and say, “it’s just the opposite. Palliative care is about patients being able to live a fulfilling life, however short or long that may be, doing what they love, being with those who they want to be with, completing their unfinished tasks and making beautiful memories not only for themselves but for those who will be left behind. It is about living with dignity, with good pain and symptom control. It’s also about acceptance and letting go with grace. Palliative care is a path specific to each individual with extra layers of support and empathy so that they enjoy the journey.”

There are days when I feel overwhelmed. Seeing another fellow human being suffer, is painful. But when I think of the difference palliative care has made in their quality of life, I feel a sense of gratitude.

I will never forget when I was counselling a very fine couple who had been married for 40 yrs. The kind gentleman was dying. He was humming a Mohammad Rafi song (Rafi was his favourite singer). I held his hand and asked him if the song was for his wife. He smiled and nodded his head. With all the strength he had, he looked at her and said “I love you”.

I asked his wife if she wanted to say the same back to him. She blushed. She said, “I have never said this to him in 40yrs of our married life. मुझे शर्म आती है (I feel embarrassed).” Her face turned crimson red and she covered it with her hands. I gently cajoled her and said that this was the time to say what she had never said before. Her eyes lit up and she said, “Should I?” And then magic happened. She looked at her husband with eyes full of tenderness and love and said, “I love you”. And time stood still after that. He died a few days later.

Dr R who was 72 yrs old, was living well with lung cancer for a few years. Once the disease progressed, she was advised to undergo intravenous chemotherapy. A single dose of chemotherapy left her drained, with many side effects. I remember meeting her at the OPD. She was crying. “I don’t want to live like this. This is not what I deserve,” she told me. I suggested that we can together speak to the oncologist about stopping chemotherapy. She lit up hearing that. Eventually, she was put on supportive care.

A few days later I got a call from her. She shared that she had visited the valley of flowers with her family. “It was something that I wanted to do. My dream was fulfilled. I’m glad I chose not to continue with chemotherapy,” she said and was gushing like a little girl. She told everyone how happy she was. Her happiness was contagious. She died a few months later. One of her family members called me and shared that Dr R was independent and active till the end. She was grateful to get a dignified death!

Well, can these memories be unhappy? My face lights up when I think of these beautiful people. These people added life to their years ….they chose not to add years (of pain and suffering) to their lives!

Palliative care can never be sad.

(Vandana Mahajan is a Palliative care counsellor with over ten years’ experience in counselling and providing psychological support to cancer patients and their families, and a dear friend of Pallium India’s.)

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