Last Breath of Life: Phenomenological Analyses of Terminal Cancer and the Experience of Dying
Annalise Mangone, MSc, Faculty Assistant, Department of Anthropology, Washington University
As disease burdens shift and terminal illness diagnoses grow, palliative care and end-of-life decision making have become a space of growing interest in all areas of scholarship. Patients with terminal diagnoses, especially ones with rapidly developing knowledge, treatments, and techniques, find themselves in the existential situation of living with the knowledge that they are soon going to die. This paper explores the question of how the embodied and oftentimes spiritual worlds of patients are fractured and rebuilt in the wake of terminal cancer diagnoses. By taking a phenomenological approach, this paper will offer an analysis of palliative care, end-of-life decision making, and terminal cancer that focuses on the diversity of worlds, beliefs, and embodied practices that emerge from the widespread experience of death. This paper also offers suggestions for how non-biomedical interventions, such as spiritual care, hospice, and new techniques of medical education can be utilized and enacted within Western systems of healthcare. Ultimately this paper argues that terminal cancer diagnoses act as a site of immense fracture between Western conceptions of the physical and the embodied, spiritual spaces which patients occupy as biomedical practice more frequently encounters and grapples with patients’ fluid and intensely deep relationships to their conceptions of the process of dying.