Earlier this week, Cancer Research UK announced that within 20 years, deaths from cancer will fall dramatically. So what, then, will people die of? Maybe we won’t die at all – isn’t that what people hope will be the result of medical research? – but live for ever and ever, becoming like the struldbrugs in Gulliver’s Travels, increasingly opinionated and cranky. Some of us are on that road already. If memory serves me right, at 80 years of age their marriages were dissolved because no two people could stand each other for ever, and they became legally dead, no longer able to own property. This is not unattractive. No taxes, no responsibilities, no leaking roofs to worry about (yes, the Rectory roof still leaks). As centuries passed, the struldbrugs could understand less and less since language changed. Hmm, immortality really does have something to be said for it after all.
Is there such a thing as a good death? Some people say they want a sudden death. No suffering for them, but hard for family. A lingering death gives time for family to come to terms with, even welcome, it, but can be trying for the dying person. When my mother was on her last legs (secondary cancer filling her liver), she was put on morphine and had a couple of months at home. I said if I was her, I’d get myself a freedom of UK train ticket and go places, though by then she was too ill to bother. After she died, my father bought a deep fat frier, and that was the end of him within 2 years. If we don’t die of cancer, I suppose heart disease will be the killer. Or murder—if the struldbrug character changes are an indicator.
What will it be for me? Road traffic accident? Heart disease (I like eggs)? Cancer? Quite possibly cancer: I am a bit of a worrier and that always gives me bellyache, and anyway there seems to be some evidence for cancer-genes in the family. Cancer is a side-effect of getting older: the longer you live, the more likely your cells are to go out of control. The sad thing is that it can strike the young.
I have slight experience of religious communities, and am always impressed by their attitude to someone’s death: here today, gone tomorrow, we have stuff to do so let’s get on with it. There’s Gospel backing for that one. I’ve no doubt that much distress at a death is the result of survivors’ guilt at the way the dead person was treated when alive, and some of the rest arises from a need to be seen to behave in a certain way.
The claim by Cancer Research UK is in truth fatuous and stupid. Everyone is going to die of something. How about most of the world’s population who don’t live long enough to get cancer at all?