A senior doctor has caused controversy by saying that far from spend billions on finding a cure for cancer we should ‘stop wasting’ the money as it is the best way to die.
Dr Richard Smith, a former editor of the British Medical Journal, wrote in a blog post that it may be a ‘romantic view’ but having a terminal illness such as cancer gives people the opportunity to say goodbye to loved ones or undertake dream adventures.
He said that while the country funds cancer treatment and research to the tune of billions, it means that many people, instead of passing away in a manner where pain is controlled, end up dying of diseases such as dementia or major organ failure.
The doctor, who is now chairman of the board of directors of a medical smartphone app wrote, suicide aside, there are four ways of dying: ‘Sudden death; the long, slow death of dementia; the up and down death of organ failure, where it’s hard to identify the final going down, tempting doctors to go on treating too long; and death from cancer, where you may bang along for a long time but go down usually in weeks.’
“I often ask audiences how they want to die, and most people chose sudden death,” he wrote.
“That may be OK for you,” I say, “but it may be very tough on those around you, particularly if you leave an important relationship wounded and unhealed. If you want to die suddenly, live every day as your last, making sure that all important relationships are in good shape, your affairs are in order, and instructions for your funeral neatly typed and in a top draw—or perhaps better on Facebook.”
In an ageing population the number of deaths from dementia is on the increase. Dr Smith compared ‘The long, slow death from dementia’ as truly horrific for the friends and families of the victim as well as the patient who is ‘slowly erased’.
“Death from organ failure—respiratory, cardiac, or kidney—will have you far too much in hospital and in the hands of doctors,” he wrote.
He quoted Luis Buñuel, the surrealist and film maker, who said he was clear about how he didn’t want to die.
“I’m not afraid of death. I’m afraid of dying alone in a hotel room, with my bags open and a shooting script on the night table. I must know whose fingers will close my eyes.”
One NHS doctor told Breitbart London that while the post by Dr Smith was controversial, it wasn’t a simple case of him being wrong.
“Some cancers of course should be treated,” the surgeon who chose to remain nameless said. “But Chemotherapy to prevent the premature death of an 85-year-old makes very little sense.”
“Most people think chemotherapy cures them but that is rarely the case. But the survival times are the golden goose: many die with awful symptoms in poverty . Nothing impoverishes you like cancer treatment, with the lack of work, travelling miles, clinic costs and costs for family and friends knowing that at the end of it you might never get work again anyway.
“Unless you have curative surgery or an easy to cure cancer you trade quality of life for quantity.”
Dr Smith admitted he may be guilty of creating ‘a romantic view of dying’ but said it was ‘achievable’.
‘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.’
Cancer specialists and charities disputed Dr Smith’s comments telling the Daily Mail that many patients suffered terribly and would not agree that it was the best way to die.
Professor Peter Johnson, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, said that research was necessary because “cancer takes far too many people far too young.”
“It’s only by being ambitious in our research that we can give people a measure of choice, and the more we know about cancer the more we can give people options.
“My patients are very clear about when they do and when they don’t want treatment, and they would much prefer me to be ambitious than nihilistic.”