Cancer: The Best Way to Die?

Posted on: January 2nd, 2015 by

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.

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22 Responses to Cancer: The Best Way to Die?

  1. Sharon Greene had this to say about that:

    Having watched my mother and aunt die from cancer, I wouldn’t wish that lingering painful death on anyone. After a certain point, the morphine no longer took away my mother’s pain. Cancer death is not like it is portrayed in the movies for most people. Most of us do not die with full make-up and long hair intact, nodding off into a coma after sharing a shot of whiskey and some nuggets of death bed wisdom. He should spend some time in the Cancer wards and maybe he would change his romanticized view of death by cancer.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Sharon,

      I’m sorry you had to experience watching your mom and aunt die from cancer. I agree that the movies really do romanticize death from cancer. And that’s part of the problem: that’s the version the unsuspecting public sees.

      I agree that Smith should visit cancer wards because this man needs to be confronted by reality. His blog post is callous.

  2. Nancy's Point had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth,
    The more I think about this guy, the more I think he must have been writing tongue in cheek because no one could be this insensitive or flippant about dying from cancer could they? I was thinking about writing a response, too, so I am so glad you did. Now I can forget it or at least wait! ha. Thanks for sharing about the reality of cancer death. It’s a horrendous way to die. I haven’t even scratched the surface with sharing publicly about my mom’s death. It’s still so raw and difficult for me to talk about. So thanks again for writing this, Beth.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Nancy,

      I think some people can be flippant about dying from cancer. Some people in this world don’t care.

      I’m so sorry about your mother’s death. I cannot imagine how horrific this was. I’m sure you have barely scratched the surface regarding this.

      Thank you for your support regarding me writing this rebuttal.

  3. Elizabeth J. had this to say about that:

    Is there some rule that each January somebody somewhere must publish something stupid and insulting about cancer? Last year it was the Kellers, now this Smith guy!

    Cancer IS robbing me of my dreams. Money goes for treatment, husband’s vacation days for my appointments, fatigue robs me of the ability to do much of what I would like. But most of all, cancer will rob me of seeing my grandkids grow up. It will probably rob me of even seeing future grandchildren, as two of my kids have yet to marry. (Will I even live to see their weddings?)

    Had I not gone through cancer treatment, I would have not even seen my first grandchild, as my cancer was highly aggressive.

    My mother (BC survivor – no recurrences) was healthy and in her eighties. Just weeks after a physical, she died of heart failure in her sleep. If there is such a thing as a “good death,” my mom had it. Her grandchildren were grown or in their teens. A devout Christian and loving person, she did not need to “mend” any relationships or “make peace” with God.

    Cancer a “good death?” This guy lives in a fantasy land, like the people who say cancer is a gift.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Oh Elizabeth, your comment is so poignant and sad. I’m so sorry for all your and your loved ones’ suffering. It’s truly horrible.

      I do understand what you are saying about your mother’s death.

      And, yes, it seems every New Year brings some loud-mouth who must say something stupid. I remember the Kellers’ faux pas quite well. And Smith is, indeed, living in fantasyland or just really heartless.

      Thank you for sharing your story and point of view.

      • Elizabeth J. had this to say about that:

        Death and suffering are indeed part of life, but so is joy and love.

        Today, I held a tiny 6 pound reason to keep fighting for life. I want to be in her life, not just someone she is told about.

        Dr. Smith has it all wrong. It is not for ourselves we need treatments and hopefully cures. It is for all those who otherwise lose us far too soon.

        • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

          So beautifully said, Elizabeth. Keep fighting. Others need you, especially that 6-pound reason.

  4. Jennifer had this to say about that:

    I have suffered Breast cancer and can attest to the suffering and I have lost a child suddenly in her sleep. I too have wondered what is “better”. I think that Mr. Smith is a fool. Maybe it is better for the person watching the death (but that is a stretch too). Bottom line is to live each day as if it could be your last. Live, love, and forgive to your fullest. Waste not a moment. And you will always be prepared.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Jennifer,

      I’m so sorry for your pain and suffering. I’m so upset about your losing a child.

      Your statement says it all: “Mr. Smith is a fool.”

      Your last statement is powerful. Living as if each day is our last and enjoying the precious moments are key.

      Thank you for sharing your story and your point of view.

  5. Barb had this to say about that:

    Beth – thank you for addressing Mr. Smith’s insane theory. It is hard to believe that he has never known anyone that has been taken by this cruel disease, for if he had his views would most certainly be at the opposite end of the spectrum. I am sure that if he had spoken to anyone suffering the effects of any terminal illness that he would learn almost every one of them, given the chance, would trade his romanticized version of dying with a chance to live a long healthy life and risk a sudden death.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Yes, Mr. Smith might very well be living in a bubble, totally unaffected by anyone’s suffering. Part of me feels he is just callous, but it’s hard to say what his motivation for writing this post was.

      I agree that had he communicated with people in a terminal situation, he perhaps would see the truth, which is not romantic.

      Thank you for your comment.

  6. Natasha Fermor had this to say about that:

    I am 42 and have Secondary Breast Cancer, I’ve watched people die of this as I know I will. I also disagree with Mr Smith with every fibre of my being.

    I do indeed have opportunity to tell people I love them and tidy up my affairs. However, I have constant pain, drugs, chemo and its various side effects…plus I can only look forward to it getting slowly worse, until it kills me. Living with that and knowing that is pretty crappy actually.

    We have enough to deal with, without people who should know better spouting this rubbish.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      I’m so sorry for all your suffering. Suffering doesn’t end when one achieves closure with one’s affairs and telling people one loves them.

      Yes, Mr. Smith has spouted rubbish, as you say so well.

      Thank you so much for sharing your story and point of view.

  7. Cancer Curmudgeon had this to say about that:

    Thanks Beth, this is one of my favorite pieces addressing this issue.

  8. Kristine had this to say about that:

    This man obviously doesn’t know what it is to have cancer or watch someone go through it. This isn’t like in the movies where the patient lies in bed with a full head of hair and only looking very sleepy as loved ones surround him or her talking about how much they love the patient. Cancer isn’t a neat and clean way to die, nor is it romantic with good-byes and drug induced states of comfort so you can just close your eyes and slip away while pretty music plays. My friend Cathy got weaker and weaker and even had trouble brathing by the time she was passing away. Yes, she had time to plan her own funeral, but she was suffering at the same time. To say cancer is the best death is an insult to all of us who have had cancer or know someone who has. I wonder what he’s smoking to think that cancer allows you to say good-bye and take trips, almost as if cancer is a celebration of sorts. I pray God has a heart to heart with him and shows him that cancer isnt’ a neat and clean way to die.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Kristine,

      I’m so sorry about the loss of your dear friend Cathy.

      I agree that going through cancer and dying from it are not like the way they are portrayed in the movies.

      Saying cancer is the best way to die is an insult to all of us, as you say. I really take issue with his flippant attitude.

  9. Beth Svercl had this to say about that:

    As a parent, watching my adult daughter die from aggressive Metastatic Breast Cancer, I am offended by the casual approach Dr. Smith takes. To have the nerve to call death from cancer a “good death,” leaves me speechless for a moment. Then my anger wells up and I have a number of choice words for Dr. Smith and at this moment they are loud words!!

    My daughter was 38 years old, she left a husband, who is still not coping 2 years later. She left 2 daughters, one of which is doing poorly and the younger is fortunately going to be the strong one. These are the 3 people she would not have hurt for anything in the world, to describe her death as “good,” is outrageous.

    Thank you for your comments, Beth. I agree Smith was on a least whiskey, maybe morphine, to make this kind of statement.

    I’m still angry as I type this and hope I do not come across as out of control. “Good death” my *ss.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      I’m so, so sorry that your daughter died from metastatic breast cancer. And I’m sorry for all the losses felt by her family, including you. I don’t blame you for being angry with Smith’s misguided thinking.

      You didn’t come across as out of control. You have every right to feel as you do.

      Thank you for sharing your story and your opinion.

  10. Pingback: Is Dying Of Cancer Really The Best Way To Die? | Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

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