Facing death: Couple develops strategy while coping with cancer

Dec 4, 2013

David Oliver, a retired MU medical professor, shares his personal exit strategy for coping with death.
David Oliver, a retired MU medical professor, shares his personal exit strategy for coping with death.
Credit Nate Anton / Favs Columbia

Death. It's often a taboo topic of conversation, despite its inevitability.

But that's not the case for everyone. David Oliver, retired medical professor at MU, and his wife, Debbie, gave a presentation yesterday evening (Dec. 3) titled, "Our Exit Strategy: Depriving Death of Its Strangeness."

Both of the Olivers have a background working in the medical industry. David Oliver, a gerontologist, spent his career educating medical students and hospital workers how to care for dying patients, and Debbie Oliver, a palliative care and hospice expert, has acquired years of experience assisting terminally ill patients and their loved ones.

After David Oliver was diagnosed with stage IV nasopharyngeal carcinoma with widespread metastasis to the bone, he decided to stop treatment and focus on living.

Their presentation began with an adaptation of a quote from Michel de Montaigne: "Let's begin depriving death of it's greatest advantage over us. Let us deprive death of it's strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death... To practice death is to practice freedom. A man that has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave."

The Olivers have made it one of their goals to get people to become more comfortable talking about death and the hardships that accompany terminal illness.

Debbie Oliver has dealt with patients diagnosed with stage IV terminal cancer, but she said it's a completely different experience when it becomes personal.

"During chemo, I'd wake up in the middle of the night and hear Debbie crying. And she didn't know that. She didn't know I could hear her," David Oliver said. "And that hurt. And it was those moments when I knew this isn't going to be easy. It's going to be hard."

He's convinced the caregiver suffers the most.

His wife expressed the importance for caregivers and loved ones to seek help when necessary throughout the caregiving process.

"I learned to reach out and ask for help," Debbie Oliver said. "Don't wait for it to come, that's really hard."

The Olivers both outlined personal strategies to cope with their situations.

David Oliver, a retired MU medical professor, shares his personal exit strategy for coping with death. FAVS photo by Nate Anton.

David Oliver is grounded in H.O.P.E.:

(H) - I want to die at home

(O) - Surrounded by others

(P) - Pain free

(E) - Engaged and excited until the end

Debbie Oliver is rooted in C.O.U.R.A.G.E.

(C) – Care for myself

(O) – Organized boundaries

(U) – Uncertain

(R) – Respite

(A) – Ask for help

(G) – Grieve

(E) – Engaged

The Olivers concluded their presentation by saying: "It is both a shared journey, and an individual journey; requiring hope and courage."

To learn more, listen to David and Debbie present at the 2013 AAHPM & HPNA Annual Assembly: