Susan Eckersley is living with terminal cancer, but refuses to let the thought of death get her down. Rather than undergo chemotherapy, she has chosen to live her final months to the fullest with the help of St Catherine’s Hospice. Here, she speaks about the importance of opening up about the end-of-life, as she shows her support to Dying Matters Awareness Week.
“As the daughter of an undertaker, I was born into the world of funerals and was brought up seeing death as just being a part of life. I’m grateful to have that attitude, because the idea of dying doesn’t frighten me, and I’m doing everything I can to make the most of the time I have left.”
Susan Eckersley isn’t shy about speaking about dying and grief, having worked in victim and bereavement support, and being raised in a family which viewed death as being part of everyday life.
After being diagnosed with lymphoma – a cancer of the lymphatic system – Susan is receiving palliative care from St Catherine’s Hospice’s Clinical Nurse Specialists at her home in Penwortham, and is opening up about her experiences this Dying Matters Awareness Week (May 14-20).
The national campaign encourages people to speak to their families and professionals about their end-of-life wishes, and to put plans in place by writing a will, making funeral arrangements, and more.
“I never let the thought of dying get me down,” Susan says. “I don’t know how long I’ve got left, but you’ve got to look on the bright side and think about what you can do to enjoy life to the full. You will always have people who don’t want to face it, but if someone does want to talk about it, I think that can be really helpful.”
Susan, a mum-of-two and grandma-of-one who lives with her husband Clive, discovered a lump in her neck three years ago.
She explains: “I was perfectly fit and well so didn’t think much of it, and following tests after tests they couldn’t find anything to be concerned about. It turned out to be a slow-growing form of lymphoma and just before Christmas last year, they discovered that it had transformed into a more aggressive type, which is terminal.
“My consultant strongly suggested chemotherapy to prolong my life, but I didn’t want to spend months feeling ill with the side effects, throwing up and not being able to spend time with the people I care about.
“He said treatment could extend my life by 12 months and that I probably have six months otherwise, but I’ll take my luck. Quality of life counts for me.
“With the palliative care and medication I’m receiving from St Catherine’s, which is second to none, along with the wonderful support of my husband who really spurs me on and the loving attention from my family, I have enough energy and motivation to do the things I enjoy. They’re all keeping me very happy.
“Clive and I even took a trip to Devon recently for a few days; we retraced our steps from when we spent our honeymoon and silver wedding anniversary there. I never thought I’d see it again, and it was absolutely magical.”
Susan and Clive are supporting Dying Matters Awareness Week by taking part in an innovative exhibition and event organised by St Catherine’s Hospice and the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston.
The couple have joined a group of contributors from the charity – including doctors, nurses, staff, volunteers and a trustee – to select 10 objects from the museum which they feel can help open up conversations about death and bereavement in positive and meaningful ways.
The objects will be on display in the museum’s café area on Friday, May 18, as part of the ‘What Can You Do?’ event, which encourages people to think about how they can better plan for the end-of-life, how they wish to be remembered, and how they can help their friends, relatives and neighbours to speak openly and honestly about issues surrounding death and bereavement.
“I really felt I could contribute to Dying Matters Week, because of my upbringing and because of what I’m going through now,” Susan, age 74, says. “It was really interesting looking at the objects and talking about historical traditions and customs, and how they compare to the ways in which people cope with loss nowadays. I’ve picked a necklace which has a lock of hair inside, which was a way for people to keep their loved ones close to their hearts even after death.
“In the past, people were much more willing to speak about death; as well as mourning jewellery like the locket, they wore black clothing to make an obvious statement that they were in mourning, so people knew what they were going through and how to approach them.
“Everyone handles things differently, but my view is that if you try to take the misery out of it and celebrate life in the best way you can, that’s a positive attitude to have.”
Everyone is invited to the event and exhibition at the Harris Museum between 11am and 2.30pm on Friday, May 18. St Catherine’s Hospice staff and volunteers, museum curators, solicitors and financial advisors will be on hand to speak with visitors, and there will also be games aimed at encouraging discussions.
A guitarist will play live music of people’s chosen funeral songs, and visitors will have the opportunity to find out more about the 10 thought-provoking objects on display, which include an ancient Egyptian shabti and a First World War Memorial Plaque. Click here to read all about the objects and why people have chosen them.