Thursday, August 20, 2015

Facing Our Mortality

I hesitated a lot - a lot, before writing this post. 

I suspect that most bloggers practice some degree of self-censorship.  Don't discuss certain topics.  Treat other ones lightly.  But I saw something on Facebook the other day that, as the current saying goes, I can't unsee.

Yesterday, I had lunch with a friend.  Her husband died from a combination of causes, including stroke and several cancers and spent his final year or so in a nursing home.

Earlier this year, my friend was treated for breast cancer.

We were chatting about "this and that" when I brought up a topic that I normally don't bring up in conversation.  No, instead, I opened my mouth and out it came.

I started to talk to her about an article I had read online yesterday called "How Doctors Die".  It was published a couple of years ago by an online magazine and made it to my Facebook timeline earlier this week. It was written by a doctor.

Doctors don't die like the rest of us, said this doctor.  The difference is extraordinary, according to this article. 

Many doctors, faced with an advanced life threatening illness, choose not to be treated.

What grabbed me was the beginning - a mentor of the author, and a doctor himself, found a lump in his stomach.  It was pancreatic cancer.  This doctor made the decision not to get treatment.

I have thought about pancreatic cancer from time to time over the years.  Three of my relatives died from it.  I don't know what type they had, but I do know the life expectancy statistics are not good.  I also know there is a genetic component.  My doctor has confirmed that, but he has nothing to offer me.

Right now, there is no test - no pap smear, no mammogram, no PSA test, for pancreatic cancer.

Why did this article grab me?  Because one of my three relatives who died from this cancer was a doctor.  I had lost touch with that branch of my family so never knew the details, only the death.  But now, I started to wonder if he had sought treatment. This man was a brilliant doctor, known for his ability to diagnose cases that stumped others.  He must have known the odds.

My aunt, who was in her early 50's, did know her odds of survival, I suspect.  She worked in insurance (I'm not sure if it was life or health but it was one of them) - in claims.  But some other family members were in total denial. "You'll get better", they said, even as she wasted away.  I moved to where she lived (a move planned before her diagnosis) while she was in her final months, and saw her decline. 

My son's pediatrician died several years ago.  I suspect he chose not to be treated for his condition, either.  Instead, there was a party for him, all his former patients invited, and he died not that long after.

This article suggests that Dr. Murray is not alone in his view.

My friend has told me, more than once, that if her cancer returns, and doctors want to give her chemo, she will not do it - except, perhaps, in an experimental program where she can benefit others.  My friend is deeply religious, and is comfortable with her decision.  So when I opened my mouth yesterday - we had a friend to friend talk.

I have other friends who faced a grim diagnosis by undergoing the treatments the medical profession suggested.  In fact, I know several people who survived when the odds were against them.

Treatment is an extremely personal decision and I would never give anyone any advice on facing their mortality.  I haven't had such a diagnosis. My time has not come yet and I have no right to think any less of anyone who takes a path that works for them, whether it is full treatment or no treatment, or something in between. I am not a deeply spiritual person, but knowing a number of people in the past few years who have faced death with dignity has  made me think a lot about what I would do.

There is no easy way to face our mortality, or the mortality of a friend or loved one.

I usually end my blog posts with a question. Not this time.  Because right now I just don't know what to think.

And no, I can't unsee the article.


  1. Your post is thought provoking, indeed. After I read it, I started to remember the looks on the faces of various doctors I interacted with over the years. Particularly the individuals who treated my father, mother, and son. Each of my loved ones had incurable cancer. Their respective doctor's were honest about their prognosis, but they all recommended treatment. I suppose if we were really listening closely, we would have heard their words more clearly. Phrases like, "This treatment is not a cure. It can extend their life, somewhat" But we always had hope that Dad, or Mom and especially my son would beat the odds. In my son's case, it was the right choice to extend his life because he got to see his son be born and celebrate his son's first birthday.
    I have no idea what choice I would make for myself.

  2. Interesting. If the treatment is awful with little chance of recovery, I'd understand why someone wouldn't want to go through that. It's a personal choice. Hard for those around them, but in the end, we can only be responsible for ourselves.

  3. I refuse to think about mortality. If we live life worrying about death, it's not really a life - now is it?

  4. I've witness those treatments rip away the quality of life and demoralize people. So it not surprise me to hear someone say they would decline further traditional treatment.

  5. Wow. Definitely a doozy of a post here...mortality is sooo not easy to think about. I'll be pondering this all day now; thanks for being so real here.

    Coming Up Roses


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