Love in the Time of Cancer

Entering a sacred space where life and death merge

Posted Oct 15, 2014

In an interview for Reimagine magazine I revealed the spate of cancers that have affected my family and friends recently. This includes my mother's death from leukemia, and the passing of my daughter's godmother from metastatic breast cancer. These deaths caused me to evaluate what it means to love someone who is dying.

At times, my visits to my dying loved ones felt like I was there to get love from them, not to ease their suffering. Love must be given, not taken. I have tried to make sure that in visiting the dying I am adding happiness to their lives, not reducing it. For my daughter's godmother, I recall exactly when I stopped visiting: when she was so impaired that the effort she took to interact with me was visibly depleting her. I kissed her, told her I loved her, and did not return. I had become a burden because I wanted love from her; I was taking more than I was giving.

In my book The Moral Molecule,  I report on the time I spent doing hospice rounds. Home hospice care involves entering a sacred space where life and death are beginning to merge. When loved ones are dying, interacting with them is often so heightened emotionally it can be unbearable.

How can the living show love to the dying? The neuroscience done in my lab suggests several ways that loving relationships can be expressed at the end of life. On top of this list is touch. Light touch is calming because it causes oxytocin release, a de-stressing agent. It also induces the release of feel-good chemicals called endorphins. This might ease the pain in those who are dying.

A second thing one can do is to "talk with your eyes." Vision makes up one-quarter of the brain and can be preserved even in minimally conscious patients. Looking in someone's eyes while talking to them may activate a larger portion of the brain. Some studies suggest making eye contact can release oxytocin.

Third, consider singing to your loved one. Memories of songs can often be recalled better than factual memories. The comfort of a known song may be calming for the dying. My lab has shown that rituals, including singing, induce the brain to synthesize oxytocin.

Another ritual to consider is a celebration. As an adult, the first close friend of mine who passed away was Dr. Margaret Gruter. Margaret was an absolutely amazing woman who founded the Gruter Institute for Law and Behavioral Research, an organization that seeks to use science to improve the law. She catalyzed my career in many ways. Most importantly, she convinced me that neuroscience could solve real problems that real people face. She continually prodded me to view myself as a healer. Everyday, I try to do a relevance check to see if my work is helping someone.

I happened to be at a conference near Margaret's home in 2003 when her daughter alerted me that she was losing her on-again-off-again battle with cancer. I asked if I could visit and she invited me to dinner. We ate her favorite, Spätzle, and popped open a bottle of Dom Pérignon. We celebrated her life and her accomplishments, and discussed the many people whose lives she had touched, both professionally and personally. I held her hand for quite awhile and told her I loved her. Two days later she passed away.

My pain at her loss was intense, but the celebration of life that preceded it provided a sense of closure. It was a great relationship and she continues to impact my life. It is love in the time of cancer.