A high-profile British doctor, Richard Smith, has said that death by cancer is the best way to die. The reason? Because it gives us the opportunity to die consciously. Writes Smith, “There are, as I endlessly repeat, essentially four ways to die: sudden death; the long, slow death of dementia; the up and down death of organ failure, where it’s hard to identify the final going down, tempting doctors to go on treating too long; and death from cancer, where you may bang along for a long time but go down usually in weeks.”
While most people I know say they want to die peacefully in their sleep, Smith states that foreknowledge of your death is preferable to sudden death. With foreknowledge, we have time to put our affairs in order and say our goodbyes.
The blog post, published on 31 December 2014, has sparked a good deal of controversy both for romanticizing death by cancer and because of Smith’s last line where he criticizes the cancer industry. He writes, “Let’s stop wasting billions trying to cure cancer, potentially leaving us to die a much more horrible death.”
Read the original post on the British Medical Journal Blog and I would also encourage you to read some of the many intelligent, pain-filled, angry or other comments and discussions below it.
Here’s how this blog post was reported in one UK newspaper. Clearly, although Smith raises several interesting points well-worthy of discussion in his blog post, some of his comments have incensed many people. This newspaper article ends with:
‘Dr Mick Peake, Clinical Lead of the National Cancer Intelligence Network said: ‘I’m not sure, from a philosophical point of view, why Dr Smith feels cancer is any different from other diseases, for many of which medical science has discovered effective treatments. ‘If he had been blogging a hundred years ago would he have said tuberculosis was a “preferred” death and berated those “overambitious TB doctors”?
‘Childhood leukaemia is an excellent example of where slow, systematic research and clinical trials over many years have resulted in the large majority of children who develop leukaemia now living normal or near-normal lives.
‘Overambitious oncologists certainly played a major role in that and many other success stories.’
Owen Sharp, Prostate Cancer UK’s chief executive added: ‘Research is not all about trying to find a cure for cancer, much of it is about finding ways to help people live longer and better with the disease.
‘Everyone’s experience is different and to suggest that dying of cancer is the same for everyone is a ridiculous over-simplification. ‘There is no ‘best’ disease to die from and what really matters is the quality of life people are helped to enjoy, right up to the end, and that means research into prevention, early diagnosis, better treatment and end-of-life care is a top priority.’
The subject of cancer and death from cancer is undeniably relevant to all of us. Statistics from 2011 quoted on the Macmillan UK site on cancer show that a third of us are likely to develop cancer at some point in our lifetime. Quoting from their homepage:
Who gets cancer?
Each year nearly 300,000 people are diagnosed with cancer in the UK. It has been estimated that more than 1 in 3 people (33%) will develop cancer at some point in their lifetime. Cancers can occur at any age, but the risk of developing cancer increases with age. Cancer isn’t common in children or young people.
Three-quarters (75%) of all newly diagnosed cancers occur in people aged 60 or over.
Less than 1 in 100 (1%) of cancers are diagnosed in children, aged 14 years or under.
About 1 in 10 (10%) of cancers are diagnosed in people aged 25-49.
See also this talk by Osho responding to one of his sannyasins who had recently recovered from cancer: “You had cancer. And it often happens that cancer can become a great opportunity, because now death is certain. Now there is no question of holding yourself back – death is going to take you away anyway”.
On Sunday, my maternal grandmother Lillian passed away after a “slow death of dementia.” She started getting a little dotty about seven years ago, but really went downhill after having a hysterectomy to remove a cancerous uterus. Some believe there is a connection between dementia and general anesthesia. Even so, I’m very grateful for her final years and I believe they were a blessing to her. For the first time in her life she could relax and just be.
It’s interesting to think that there are basically four ways to die. Perhaps the real lesson we need to draw is that each of us will certainly die one way or another.
By John Tintera, New York City, January 2015