Essays of the Dying: Laurie Becklund

The former LA Times staff writer Laurie Becklund died on February 8 in Hollywood, CA of breast cancer. Before she died she penned a moving essay about death and dying. (In the past few days I have discussed a number of “essays of the dying.” They can be found here, here, and here.) She also gave a beautiful speech about her experience of dying of cancer in the video below.) She begins her essay:

I am dying, literally, at my home in Hollywood, of metastatic breast cancer, the only kind of breast cancer that kills. For six years I’ve known I was going to die. I just didn’t know when.

Then, a couple of weeks before Christmas, a new, deadly diagnosis gave me a deadline. No doctor would promise me I’d make it to 2015.

Promise me, I told my friends and family, that you’ll never say that I died after “fighting a courageous battle with breast cancer.” This tired, trite line dishonors the dead and the dying by suggesting that we, the victims, are responsible for our deaths or that the fight we were in was ever fair.

Promise me you’ll never wear a pink ribbon in my name or drop a dollar into a bucket that goes to breast cancer “awareness” for “early detection for a cure,” the mantra of fund-raising juggernaut Susan G. Komen, which has propagated a distorted message about breast cancer and how to “cure” it.

I’m proof that early detection doesn’t cure cancer. I had more than 20 mammograms, and none of them caught my disease. In fact, we now have significant studies showing that routine mammogram screening, which may result in misdiagnoses, unnecessary treatment and radiation overexposure, can harm more people than it helps.

I don’t know enough about breast cancer to know if these latter claims are true, but I do know that this essay differs in tone from the other essays of the dying I have recently read. Her tone in defiant, and her defiant plea falls on my receptive ears. After all, I consider death to be a great evil, and I have argued that death should be optional.

Her tone resonates with the spirit of Philip Appleman, a contemporary poet about whom I have written. Appleman says: “Our anger at death is precious, testifying to the value of life; our sorrow for family and friends testifies to our devotion.” Her tone also reminds me of the immortal lines of Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Here is Thomas reciting his famous poem:

Becklund says that dying of the disease has been like “playing Chutes and Ladders, a childhood board game whose outcome is based on rolls of the dice. As for a cure, she says poignantly: “It will come too late for me. But it is possible to end the game: Patients shouldn’t have to climb up ladders and fall down chutes.”

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