In general, the dreams of those who are dying often contain imagery that symbolizes the continuation of life after death. This expectation of death as a form of rebirth into another plane of existence is helpful to those who fear dying because it gives them hope that death is more than passing into oblivion. Having any kind of religious faith often contributes to the ease with which a person will accept the impending loss of life. The belief in an afterlife can help to diminish the fear that many feel when examining their own mortality; by lessening the fear it will decrease the frequency of nightmares as one approaches death. For example, a woman who suffered from terminal cancer experienced the recurring dream of a hand beckoning from the far side of a river. Each time she had this dream the river was a little narrower, until at last she could step over it to the other side. This last dream occurred shortly before her death. It seemed that the river in her dreams represented the river of life and that by crossing it in her dream she felt she was ready to cross it in her waking life as well.
Dreams that diagnose cancer, or at least give the dreamer the idea that an examination may be prudent, have frequently been observed. The writer Marc Ian Barasch suffered from recurring nightmares that involved his neck. After a particularly poignant dream, involving an iron pot filled with red-hot coals that were hung from beneath his chin, he decided to seek out medical professionals. Although the initial round of tests detected nothing, the nightmares continued and Barasch insisted they run more tests. Eventually, doctors detected a hard lump in his neck that turned out to be cancerous. He was treated for thyroid cancer in the very early stages and survived; however, the outcome may not have been so fortuitous if his recurrent nightmares had not driven him to insist that they continue to look. By prompting early detection, the nightmares were likely responsible for saving his life.
Nightmares may also contribute to the dropping of habits that are hazardous to one’s health. This was the case of William C. Dement, who coined the term rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. At one time, Dement had been a heavy smoker. During this period, he dreamed he had inoperable cancer of the lungs. In this dream, he went through the fear of dying. He experienced the sadness he would face with the prospect of not being able to watch his family grow and the grief his family would go though because of their loss. He quit smoking the next day.