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Saturday, January 3, 2015

Once more, with feeling: Is cancer the best way to die?

...or, once more with feelings other than rage.

I can't stop thinking about this "cancer is the best death" business. I'm pissed off, but I'm also extremely confused. 

To recap, on 12/31, BMJ posted a blog entry from Richard Smith, the former editor,  entitled "Dying of Cancer is the Best Death." And, predictably, hilarity ensues. 

Other bloggers have more eloquently, and with more grace than I could muster, rebutted the op-ed -- please read this post from Sarah of Fights Like a Girl, and Beth Gainer's essay. I thank these level-headed and eloquent women for their words and smarts and hearts. 

Go read this immediately

I will focus on a different facet of this frankly odd posting. I'm troubled by the fact that a grown ass man, a scientist, no less, seems to have lost touch with reality -- or rather denies reality -- in this way. I find it hard to believe that he's never been at the bedside of a dying person, so I don't think he can really claim ignorance here. I don't think he was trying to be a troll...I wish it were that simple. I don't think he thinks there's anything wrong or untrue about the rosy view he takes of death from cancer. He seems to see terminal cancer as getting to live a while in The Bucket List, and then going gentle into that good night. Uh, no.

But what upsets me the most is that I don't think he's alone.

Smith's piece called up a comment I heard from a literary agent (who didn't know my background) about being sick of getting proposals for cancer memoirs. "Get over it," she said. "Write a blog." Confronted with something that made her uncomfortable, made her possibly consider her own mortality, she rejected the work as meaningless and unimportant.

The thing about his tone deaf and insensitive comments is that they feel troublingly familiar. That there are very few steps between "Cancer is the best death," and "STFU and stop talking about it." These comments seem to come from a place of what must be a willful misunderstanding of the nature of disease and death, and are designed to shut down conversation. Smith is an extreme example, so let's think about some more every day interactions. How many of us have had a conversation like this?:

Cancer patient: I'm worried about dying. 
Well-meaning non-cancer person: Don't worry, you'll be fine! Anyway, none of us knows how long we have left. We have to live for today! Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today!
Cancer patient: ...

The respondent thinks they are being nice, or comforting. But actually, they are negating the cancer patient's completely justified thoughts, with the logic-defying "you won't die/we all will die" platitude. And they do this, consciously or not, because talking about death makes them extremely uncomfortable.

I was thinking about how I could channel my anger about this recurrent theme in our culture. (Pacing around flailing, while aerobically not worthless, didn't achieve much.) And I decided I can use my plentiful rage to start a conversation.

Instead of letting these comments shut down crucial communication, let's use this as an opportunity to talk death with our family and friends. What do you want for your death? Do you want to be at home? Who do you want to be present? If your health is in a slow decline, what types of medical interventions will you want? 

I started the conversation tonight with Matt. I'm not gonna lie, it was awkward. There was fidgeting, avoided eye contact, plaintive cries of "Why do we have to talk about this now?"

I likened it to a wedding registry. "If you don't tell anyone your thoughts, you end up with a $800 Steuben candy dish shaped like a snail." And nobody wants that.


  1. Your comments are very true. I've been following the reply posts to this deplorable article but I never made the STFU connection before.

  2. Hi Emily, I never saw the connection between the "shut up" dismissiveness and Smith's article, but I see it now. Thank you for that. I love your snark and writing style, and your points are extremely well-taken. Thank you so much for the kind words about my post on Smith's idiotic views. Kudos to you for being authentic and writing from the heart, as well as having that difficult conversation with your partner.