They say that we in Britain are unwilling to talk about death, and are embarrassed by it. I can’t say that I’ve noticed that myself, although I don’t spend an awful lot of time discussing the subject.
We’re born, we grow up, we raise children (most of us), and eventually we die. These days people love to talk about “closure”, and death is surely the ultimate and inevitable (but also the proper and appropriate) closure to life, whether or not you choose to believe in an afterlife.
That said, most of us would rather die later rather than sooner, especially if we have a prospect of future years of tolerable health and activity. I’ve always liked Woody Allen’s aperçu on death: “I’m not afraid of death – I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. But I guess the ideal death was best described by John Keats: “To cease upon the midnight with no pain”. But not quite yet, please.
However we now have a doctor, no less, telling us that maybe cancer is quite a good way to die. We should be glad of it. After all we all have to die of something, and cancer at least gives us time to come to terms with the idea, to set our affairs in order, and to take leave of our loved ones. So we should stop “wasting” billions on research designed to cure or eliminate it.
This doctor is one Richard Smith (remind me not to sign on at his surgery, please).
But what about the pain and anguish associated with the disease? Not a problem, says the good doctor. Palliative medicine and pain relief are now so good and effective that these little unpleasantnesses can be largely avoided. I fear that many cancer sufferers and their loved ones might take a different view.
I’ve tried to come to terms with this idea, but I have to say that I’m appalled. There are many unpleasant and painful and distressing degenerative and other diseases from which we might die. But I think most of us, given the choice, would prefer to avoid them if we could, and die quietly of old age when the time comes.
Dr. Smith seems to assume that cancer only strikes the old. Does he have no thought or compassion for children, for teenagers, for active parents in middle life who are struck down by the “Big C”? Are they not worthy of a cure? Does he have no concern about the impact of cancer on our health services? It was recently described as “a crisis of unimaginable proportions” for the NHS.
We have had it drummed into us that cancer is caused by our bad lifestyles, by smoking, air pollution, alcohol, red meat and ham and sausages, or sunshine and obesity. So it was salutary to read of a recent study suggesting that only around a third of cancers are lifestyle-related, while the other two thirds are the result of random mutations on cell division that could affect any of us regardless of lifestyle. It seems that the biggest lifestyle carcinogen is smoking (so I’m rather glad I gave up the habit forty years ago).
More generally, it’s difficult to square the constant warnings that human activity and pollution and lifestyle are a threat to the survival of the species with the unprecedented and welcome rise in life-expectancy.
I’m afraid that Dr. Smith is wrong, wrong, wrong. Sensible people want a healthy and active old age, untroubled by cancer and other diseases. But his suggestion has had one positive effect: I’ll send a small cheque to cancer research.