Death Isn’t the Kind of Thin We Want

When cachexic was first spoken to describe a patient during a hospice team meeting, I had no clue what it meant. Nonetheless, as someone who, long-ago and far-away, studied Latin and Greek, I figured the odd word had roots in those languages. Indeed, it does. But I probably would have tossed in extra “Ks” if I’d tried to spell it. And if a nurse demanded I repeat it back to her, I would’ve also failed the pronunciation test.

It’s a clunky, marbles-in-the-mouth type of word for a cruel condition. Here’s what Amber Dance wrote in a still relevant 2012 article for the Los Angeles Times:

“Cachexia (pronounced kuh-KEK-see-uh) is commonly defined as the unintentional loss of 5% or more of a person’s weight within a six-month period. Crucially, it’s muscle that slides off one’s frame, often with fat as well. It’s associated with advanced cancers as well as HIV, heart failure and kidney disease. In layman’s terms, it means “the patient looks awful, they look weak, they’ve lost much of their body mass . . .”

Now I’ll bet it’s easier for you to pronounce the word. Maybe you could even pass a spelling bee. But all things considered, I’d rather never hear the word in a spelling bee or hospice meeting. With those Greek roots wrapped around some of the worst of what can happen to you or a loved one, it won’t surprise anyone to learn it’s similar to pyrexia (an abnormal elevation of body temperature) and dyslexia (a condition of the brain that makes it hard for a person to read, write and spell).

Cachexia may not have a “K,” but dread any Greek gift that includes an “X.” There’s always trouble, like lights flashing at a railroad crossing, whenever XIA is a word’s final syllables.

How terrible to have the body waste away. Some patients do.

And, ironically, how stressful to live in a culture enamored with being thin or thinner.

  • When ten more pounds go, I’ll be happy!
  • I’m counting calories so that I can get rid of the fat!
  • I’m running an extra mile, swimming an extra lap to drop the weight.
  • I want to look like _____________! (There’s always an ultra-thin celebrity we “admire.”)

We can’t escape new and improved diets hyped on commercial. Self-help web pages surface every day with a new gimmick for easy exercise and quick body slimming. Doctors you know and trust suggest you should shed a few pounds. Doctors on YouTube, who you don’t know and don’t trust, say the same thing. Drink this. Eat that. Run! Walk! Yoga! Pilates!

Thin is sexy. Fat is not.

Body shaming is rampant on social media. Every time we gaze at our reflection, it seems like we’re using a carnival fun house mirror that distorts our image.

I struggle with how I view my body. I exercise. I’m reasonably healthy for an aging “baby boomer.” But I’ve always been described as chunky. A hospice colleague, soon after we met, wondered if I’d ever played Santa during Christmas! He may have asked that while admiring my now white (not brown) beard, but my jolly cheeks burned as I recalled Clement Clark Moore’s line about St. Nick: “He had a broad face and a little round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly…”

If I could only lose a few pounds.

When death comes, we will waste away. Everything changes. When grieving a beloved’s death, we will waste away. Everything changes.

However, while a patient is dying or as family and friends grieve after the death, maybe a part of us can change in a different way. Though our bodies may literally or figuratively waste away, it is still possible to add the good “weight” of sharing how much you love those who matter, and reminding friends and family how precious they are.

Sadly, weight loss through disease—like cachexia—can’t be controlled or stopped. But with hopeful, heartfelt efforts, there’s some weight we can choose to gain . . .

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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