The Will-to-Live-Until Phenomenon

Sometimes, the human body fends off death for reasons we don’t yet fully understand.

Photo by Adobe Stock/Влад Астанин.


I’ve long been convinced that, at least to some extent, and within the boundaries imposed by the aggressiveness of their cancers, my patients die only when they’re good and ready to. For many, that time occurs after they have achieved a specific goal. Perhaps it’s the birth of a grandchild, or that grandchild’s college graduation. Maybe it’s seeing the long-lost sibling a patient has been feuding with for years. Parents always wait to say goodbye to their children: I have seen patients, even those moribund and comatose, linger for days until a daughter or son from overseas arrives. 

One patient, a man in his late 60s who had multiple cancers, told me his goal was to walk his granddaughter down the aisle at her wedding. He and his wife had raised her while their daughter, who had gotten pregnant in her teens and then became addicted to drugs, struggled to get her life back in order. 

After surviving colon cancer years earlier, he developed lung cancer. Prior to treating that cancer, the lung cancer specialist referred him to me when he noticed the patient had abnormal blood counts. A bone marrow biopsy revealed both acute leukemia and another bone marrow cancer, multiple myeloma. 

Three cancers at the same time, four in total, but you’d never know it from his attitude. 

5/16/2020 11:01:32 PM

When my grandmother was very ill and near to death, she asked her Iowa farming sons and son-in-law each time they came to visit her at the hospital whether or not the corn had all been harvested. She hung on until the day they told her the harvest was complete and then she passed. My theory is that she knew, having been a farmer's wife herself, that the harvest was crucial and it would be a hardship for the men to take the time off from working in the fields to attend her funeral and so she waited until the 'right' time to die.

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