We have just dipped our toes into the New Year, but someone’s outrageous views on cancer death has already caught the attention of the public.
On December 31, Richard Smith wrote a post for The BMJ blog titled “Dying of Cancer is the Best Death.” And this is Smith’s thesis: that it is far better to die a slow death that cancer affords than from a sudden death. According to Smith, “So death from cancer is the best, … You can say goodbye, reflect on your life, leave last messages, perhaps visit special places for a last time, listen to favourite pieces of music, read loved poems, and prepare, according to your beliefs, to meet your maker or enjoy eternal oblivion.”
What a nice picture of cancer death.
Unfortunately, this short-sighted, oversimplified view omits the truth about dying from cancer: it’s a horrible, frightening, terrible way to die. Cancer is ugly. It doesn’t matter whether patients can say their goodbyes and express to their loved ones how much they love each other. Death from cancer involves suffering unimaginable to people like Smith.
My friend Faun, who died of metastatic breast cancer, got to say her goodbyes in her 40s. At the end of her life, she and I exchanged our “I love yous.”
Although we achieved closure before she died and she got to live out some dreams like getting married and owning a home, I watched her die for four years. It was horrific and involved incredible amounts of suffering — not just for her, but for her loved ones.
And not all terminal patients can live out their dreams, Mr. Smith: Faun had desperately wanted children, but chemotherapy stole her fertility. We shared the same dream of perhaps adopting children. Cancer stole that dream from her. Oh, and she couldn’t visit special places for the last time, unless one counts the hospital. She was so ill, she needed to constantly be near her doctors.
My friend Virginia died of leukemia. She was so ill and suffered for so long, it was unbearable for me and her other loved ones to watch. Like Faun, she was also too ill and too tied to the hospital and her physicians to jet-set and see special places. Prior to cancer, Virginia was a naturalist who was no stranger to adventure. She had lived in Africa for awhile and went to Costa Rica, just to name a few of her excursions. When she got ill, she was still a naturalist, but her travels ended.
She did take up the ukulele towards the end of her life, which Mr. Smith would say that had she had an instant death, she would have never had that opportunity.
Such an illogical, twisted way of thinking, really.
Virginia had many more dreams to fulfill, but in the end, she never got to accomplish them, thanks to cancer. She died, leaving a husband, three grown daughters, and two young grandchildren. Her dream of watching them grow up was not realized.
Smith ends his post with the following delusional, misguided assertion: “This is, I recognise, a romantic view of dying, but it is achievable with love, morphine, and whisky. But stay away from overambitious oncologists, and let’s stop wasting billions trying to cure cancer, potentially leaving us to die a much more horrible death.”
This flippant statement makes me wonder if Smith was on morphine and whisky while he was writing his post.
Surely he believes that love and painkillers are sufficient to alleviating suffering.
Well, he is wrong. My friend’s mom, who had metastatic pancreatic cancer, opted out of treatment; she just wanted to be kept comfortable with morphine and not to suffer from the effects of chemotherapy. She died months after the date of diagnosis. During her last weeks, she became bedridden and, although she was lovingly cared for by my friend and comfortably on morphine, the patient got to the point where she just wanted to die and go to Heaven. A religious woman, she was hopeful that each day would be her last. But whenever she woke up to cruelly discover she was still on Earth in her cancer-riddled body, she suffered.
Smith’s final proposal — that we stay away from oncologists and stop donating funds to cure cancer — is so short-sighted, ridiculous, simple-minded, and erroneous, it’s not worth addressing.
His ignorance of what defines a quality life and a quality death speaks for itself.
Truth is, Mr. Smith, there is no best way to die. And if there were, cancer definitely wouldn’t be it.
To read his entire blog post, click here.
Mr. Smith’s thesis is that cancer is the best way to die. Please feel free to comment on this statement or any other he makes.
Please feel free to share your and/or your loved one’s stories. I would like to hear them.
Tags: cancer, cancer and suffering, cancer the best way to die, metastatic cancer, Richard Smith, The BMJ