It's a subject most people find frightening and hard to talk about—death. In a special report, Dr. Mehmet Oz talks to two people who have faced their mortality—and learned something about life in the process. "We do not do death well in America. Americans like to win, and we see death as losing," Dr. Oz says. "Death is an integral part of this amazing life that we have the ability to live."
In 2003, Kris was a model and aspiring actress. Then she received devastating news—she had a rare form of cancer that was in its most serious stage. Kris immediately set to figuring out what to do about the cancer…and picked up a camera to record the process.
After getting prescribed drastic treatments—including a recommendation for a triple organ transplant—Kris searched for other opinions and explored alternative options like health food and yoga. Her journey was made into the documentary Crazy Sexy Cancer, which aired on TLC, and the book Crazy Sexy Cancer Tips. "A lot of people look at me like I have 10 heads when I say it, but cancer's been my guru, it's my teacher," Kris says in the film. "It teaches me every day the hard things and the beautiful things."
Years later, Kris says the tumors on her liver and lungs are completely stable. "I'm happy and, I think, healthier than I was before I was diagnosed," she says.
Dr. Oz went to meet Kris in New York to see her wellness routine. "I like the fact that she didn't just trust modern medicine. I love the fact that she was empowered, and she was going to go out and find solutions," he says. "She wasn't going to take no for an answer."
In her kitchen, Kris whipped up a special health cocktail for Dr. Oz using cucumber, celery, sprouts and kale. "It's green," she says. "Whatever is in the refrigerator that's green, it's in my juice."
"And it tastes good," Dr. Oz says.
Kris says this healthy lifestyle is far removed from her old self. "I did martinis before, now I do green drinks," she says. "I knew when I was diagnosed with cancer the only thing I could control was what I ate, what I drank and what I would think. I thought the best place to start was with what I put in my mouth. It's one of the many reasons I think I feel better."
The biggest change Kris says she made in her fight with cancer was in her mind. "I think that life is just too sweet to be bitter," she says. "Once I was able to change my focus, desperation led to inspiration. Once I was able to do that, I looked around me. I made so many changes and I thought, 'This is an awesome life. I mean, honestly, I don't think anybody has a better life than me.'"
Instead of focusing on cancer and death, Kris says she focuses on staying in the moment of living. "How do you live your life with the knowledge of cancer?" she says "I might not ever be able to get rid of it, but I can't let that ruin my life."
One big way Kris embraced life was by getting married…but she didn't go for the traditional vows.
"I thought that would be way too melodramatic—'Until death do us part,'" she says. "We talked a lot about, 'Could we go into something like a commitment for the future?' And we both feel, 'Absolutely. Because none of us know how long we have, so let's go.' We love each other and we're an awesome team."
Kris says the way she has reacted to her cancer is the way everyone should evaluate their lives. "I think just go for it. Life is a terminal condition. We're all going to die," she says. "Cancer patients might have more information, but we all, in some ways, wait for that great permission to live."
Randy Pausch is a married father of three, a very popular professor at Carnegie Mellon University—and he is dying. He is suffering from pancreatic cancer, which he says has returned after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Doctors say he has only a few months to live.
In September 2007, Randy gave a final lecture to his students at Carnegie Mellon that has since been downloaded more than a million times on the Internet. "There's an academic tradition called the 'Last Lecture.' Hypothetically, if you knew you were going to die and you had one last lecture, what would you say to your students?" Randy says. "Well, for me, there's an elephant in the room. And the elephant in the room, for me, it wasn't hypothetical."
Despite the lecture's wide popularity, Randy says he really only intended his words for his three small children. "I think it's great that so many people have benefited from this lecture, but the truth of the matter is that I didn't really even give it to the 400 people at Carnegie Mellon who came. I only wrote this lecture for three people, and when they're older, they'll watch it," he says.
Randy says his speech is mostly about achieving childhood dreams—and living your life. "Any professor will tell you there's some lectures you have to pull them out of yourself, and there's some that just pour. This talk wrote itself," he says.
While Randy has known about his cancer for a year, he says he learned six or seven weeks ago that he might only have months to live. "One person says three to six months, and another one says, 'Yeah, three to six months, but only because three's in that range.' So you sort of get some shading of it," he says.
Randy isn't giving in to the prognosis—he is continuing his medical treatment in the hope of prolonging his life. "[Somebody said], 'You've become so famous for dying, what's going to happen if you're alive in a year or two?'" Randy says. "I said, 'Give me the problem! I'd like to work on that one.'"
Dr. Oz says it's impossible to determine precisely how long someone with a terminal illness will survive. "We also have the phenomenon of a 'no-cebo effect,'" Dr. Oz says. "Everyone knows what a placebo is, right? When people tell you stuff is going to be good and you do better than you're supposed to. When we tell you you're going to die, you cooperate."
While they obviously want to heal their patients, in many cases, Dr. Oz says the physician's role is simply to help bring a sense of calm to the family. "The fascinating thing about the medical profession is the ancient healing rite was not to save lives. We couldn't do that that well until this century. It wasn't about doing a lot more than just bringing order to the situation," he says. "I unfortunately deal with this a fair amount as a heart surgeon. A lot of times, you're just making it calm for everybody to break that chaos apart. I do get that we have to offer hope, but hope's not about having a good outcome. Hope's about making sense of it all."
Randy says the first sign that something was wrong with him was a "funny" feeling. "I had sort of bloating in my abdomen, and I would have called it cramping, but it wasn't quite the same," he says. Randy also became jaundiced without feeling pain—a major indication to doctors that pancreatic cancer could be the culprit.
After an ultrasound, Randy's doctor told him the news—there was a mass on his pancreas. "If you're going to pick off a list, this is not the cancer you would pick," Randy says. "I mean, it's pretty much the last one you would want to get. It's pretty much the most fatal. I had no idea how bad pancreatic cancer would be."
Dr. Oz says pancreatic cancer is so serious because by the time it is detected, it is often too late to treat. "The pancreas is nestled away in the back of the belly, and it doesn't have any real symptoms until it's already spread," he says. "So unlike a lot of the cancers that we really push hard for folks to get screened on—colon cancer, breast cancer, skin cancer—it's very hard to find pancreatic cancer early, and by the time we find it, it's caused that painless jaundice because it's blocked off the liver."
Randy says he underwent surgery to remove the tumor, as well as a third of his stomach, a third of his pancreas, his gallbladder and a section of his small intestine. His weight dropped from 183 pounds down to 138, making him so thin that he had to remove his wedding ring. "I just got so skinny it would fall off. And that hurt," he says.
Randy says he doesn't have many regrets about the way he has lived his life, and he sees his cancer just as bad luck. "I think that we all stand on the dartboard of life. Roughly 30,000 people a year are going to catch a dart labeled pancreatic cancer, and that's unfortunate. It's not what I would have chosen. But I in no way feel like I deserved it," he says.
Randy says he can't change the cards he's been dealt, but he can control how he plays them. "If you are hopeful, if you are optimistic, other people want to help you. And if you are down in the dumps, other people may still help you, but I've noticed that they're walking, not running, over to you," he says. "In the lecture, I talk about you've got to decide pretty early in life whether you're going to be a Tigger or an Eeyore. What I found is if you're an upbeat person, people will flock to help you, and suddenly everything gets easier."
Randy sees life as being 10 percent white, 10 percent black and 80 percent gray. "You can go through life and say, 'Gee, that 80 percent gray part, that's black, and life is a bad thing,'" he says. "Or you can say that 80 percent gray part's part of the white, and it's the goodness and the light. I want to view life that way. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. That 80 percent in the middle really can go either way, and if you decide you want to make it go good, not bad, you have a lot more power to make that happen than you might think."
As Randy faces his prognosis, thoughts about his final days come to mind. "I'm not keen on the process [of dying]," he says. "Not only is this not the cancer you want, it's probably not the last couple of weeks that you'd want."
Dr. Oz says pancreatic cancer erodes into the back and invades the nerves, causing a lot of pain, and it blocks off the intestines. "It's not pleasant at any level. The things you want to do in life, you can't do in life. That's a very reasonable thing to fear," Dr. Oz says. "You're often in chronic pain, and you can't eat. If you take away the ability to move and to eat, that's a large part of the human experience."
Randy emphasizes that medical improvements in pain management may make his last days of the disease easier to bear. "I've certainly heard from lots of people who have given me great encouragement, and they said, 'My dad died of pancreatic cancer and he was visiting with friends until eight hours from the end,'" Randy says. "So it's not like every case is going to be this sort of nightmare scenario."
As his cancer progresses, Randy has made a living will in order to make life a little easier for his family. But aside from planning a small ceremony, Randy says he isn't spending his days making funeral preparations. "I don't think that's a particularly great use of my time. I think spending just a little bit of time is the right way to do it. I'd rather, while I'm healthy, spend time with my kids and doing things that are helpful to other people while I'm still fairly vigorous."
While his priorities have not changed drastically, Randy says a lack of time is a major motivator. "There was a sort of logistical rush, because the analogy I use is that my family's about to get pushed off a cliff, and any good father says, 'I want to be there to catch them,'" he says. "Well, I'm not going to be there to catch them. But I'm spending my limited time sewing some really good nets to cushion the fall."
After hearing advice from counselors, Randy and his wife decided not to tell their young children about the cancer until it's absolutely necessary. "Until I become symptomatic, until Daddy looks sick," he says, "there's no sense in telling our children."
One thing Randy says he has been doing is thinking of ways for his children to know about him and what he thought of them. "Dylan, my oldest child, he's just a natural scientist. He's already figured out that the questions are more important than the answers.
"Logan, he's my little Tigger. He's got this joy for life.
"And my little girl, Chloe, well the thing I want to tell her is—you're not allowed to date until you're 30! But when you do start dating, my advice on boys is [to] just ignore everything they say and just pay attention to what they do. If you do that, you're not going to make all the big mistakes."
While speaking with Randy in Virginia, Dr. Oz says he suggested they take a break and toss around a football. So Randy went and got one—but it was no ordinary ball. The day before, he had worked out with the Pittsburgh Steelers and had the entire team sign a ball…and now he was going to use that prized ball to play catch!
"I said, 'We can't have a catch with this, it's signed,'" Dr. Oz says. "He said, 'What am I going to do with it?' We ought to all be living our lives like that. What's the point of saving it? We might as well enjoy it."
Oprah mentions a quote by Leonardo da Vinci: "As a well spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death." Does Randy think his life was "well used"?
"I'm married to an incredible woman, and I have great kids, and it's hard for me to imagine," he says. "I like to think that I have helped a lot of other people—and that's the best definition I know of time well spent."
Sadly, Randy passed away on July 25, 2008.