Not long ago, a distinguished man of letters of my acquaintance, who lived in a far distant country, sent me an e-mail. It started with an enquiry after my general welfare, and continued:
All is well here – except that I am dying.
The lightness, almost gaiety, of his tone only added to the shock. He was a comparatively young man (that is, he was only a few years older than I), and at a time when the life expectancy is 80 years one does not expect, irrationally no doubt, one’s acquaintances to die many years before that age.
It was cancer, of course, and a little later he told me that he had read of a new experimental drug on the internet of which he was now trying to get hold. It was not effective, alas, but the search for new experimental drugs, in which a desperate hope is reposed, either by the sufferer or relatives of the sufferer, now seems almost a definite stage of dying of cancer, as denial, numbness, anger, etc, are stages of grief.
The distinguished writer of science fiction, Brian Aldiss (born 1925), wrote a memoir of his wife’s fatal cancer of the pancreas, When the Feast Is Finished, in which he described precisely this desperate hope. His wife died in 1997, the cancer having advanced very quickly after diagnosis, and the book was published in 1999; at one point in the memoir American friends told him by telephone of a new drug that they believed was being tested in Chicago, which raised his hopes. He imagined taking his wife, already much debilitated, to Chicago, there to be restored to him. Alas, it turned out that the drug was being tested even further away, in San Francisco, and only on young and hitherto fit sufferers. His hopes were dashed.
Is it better to have hoped and been deceived than never to have hoped at all? Probably the drug would not have worked, or at best extended life by a week or two at fantastic expense both of money and extra symptomatology. Of all the people I have known who have tried such desperate remedies – only too understandably – not a single one has benefited much. But I suppose the price of progress is a certain amount of heartbreak and disillusion.
Aldiss must have written the book as a salve to his grief. One or two of his observations will remain with me. Although he is very complimentary about the hospice in which his wife stayed until the day before her death, he suspected it (fleetingly) of gentrifying death, surely a suspicion that must have occurred to others. And he says something that I have often noticed in some of the old, that the details of daily existence are all that is left to them. This cannot be true in his case, however, since he has remained as productive as ever.
Although Aldiss and his wife were not believers, her funeral was held in an old parish church. Even the least religious of us feels that a funeral without a service is like a wedding without a bride, that is to say somewhat awkward and even embarrassing: a proof, I suppose, of the depth of the religious roots of our culture and consciousness.
Copyright 2013 Anthony Daniels
A relative of mine living near London developed leukaemia. Upon first diagnosis he was told “you have a 60% chance of beating this”. He was offered a place on an experimental drugs trial, which, after much thought, he declined. His brother was an excellent match for a cell transplant. This was successfully carried out, by supposed leaders in their field, in a London teaching hospital. Then, job done, as it were, they put him on an open men’s surgical ward. His brother protested that a patient who had just had all his white cells irradiated probably ought to be in his own room, at the very least. After several days they agreed to move him, but his condition deteriorated rapidly and he died from pneumonia shortly thereafter. I cannot help but wonder if, had he accepted the offer of the drugs trial, he might have been put into the positive-pressure isolation ward bed which he had been told he would be in before he had his transplant, and if that might have resulted in a better outcome for him. The heartbreak and disillusion came not from the cancer but from the raising of the hopes, only for them to be dashed by the medical team failing to go not even the ‘extra mile’ but the mile they had said they would go with him. If the medical team had simply said “I’m sorry, there’s nothing we can do, go home and die”, this may well have been kinder to the patient, and to his immediate family.
It’s long been clear that our hospitals haven’t mastered 19th century ideas about not spreading germs. Maybe that’s what you get for elevating a health service to a state religion.
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