Belfast Telegraph

Janet Street-Porter: We might beat cancer, but we will never beat death itself

By Janet Street-Porter

Good news - for young people anyway. Experts say deaths from cancer will be "eliminated" (except for those aged over 80) within 35 years. The disease will be relegated to a preventable or curable condition thanks to improved surgical techniques, better radiology and more effective drugs.

But for now it can be devastating, and last week saw a blow for thousands of sufferers when the Government announced it could no longer afford to fund 21 life-extending drugs, some of which cost as much as £57,000 for a single course of treatment. One drug, for advanced prostate cancer, costs £22,000 and can extend a patient's life for at least three months. These costly drugs don't cure the disease, they just delay the inevitable.

I know all about extending the life of a terminally ill person: my sister was diagnosed with brain and lung cancer. The health service declined to treat her brain tumours, so I paid £16,000 for private surgery.

I didn't give it a moment's thought, just stuck it on my credit card, and so the gift of life was just down to cashflow and my dear sister lived for another four months, exactly what the surgeon predicted.

Medical experts say we are at a "special point in history" where cancer can be beaten by 2050, but in the meantime there will be thousands of deaths from it.

This year, 325,000 people will be diagnosed - more than ever. Cancer has taken two of my best friends, as well as dozens of acquaintances. There's not a woman over 40 who doesn't regularly wake up and worry she'll be next.

While it's becoming easier to identify genetic factors and test earlier and more effectively, there's another aspect to cancer that we seem reluctant to face up to: we are all going to die sometime. Cancer often brings that date forward. Should everyone have access to drugs costing hundreds of thousands of pounds that just delay death?

A difficult decision. The health service doesn't have enough money to do its job properly and the Government's special Cancer Drugs Fund has spent its budget of £280m.

How can we choose between giving cancer victims another three months with friends and family, or providing carers and support for hundreds of elderly people who shouldn't be sitting in hospital?

Death rates for the most common cancers are falling fast. The health service has a "five-year plan" to spot cancer earlier, but there is still an unacceptable time lag between diagnosis and the start of treatment.

If I had terminal cancer, I would want to live as long as possible. It's a natural reaction. But would it not be better to accept one's fate and prepare to die as comfortably as possible?

Death is still a huge taboo and it's interesting that many of the US tech billionaires are investing huge sums of money in research that looks at ways of delaying it, from cell replacement to cryogenics. Last week, that diehard Lothario Jack Nicholson, told a journalist he was scared of dying alone in his Hollywood mansion with nobody by his side.

We are living longer than ever and medical breakthroughs are prolonging lives - hence the huge number of elderly people who require support after they leave hospital.

The most difficult journey for us to contemplate seems to be the one to our last breath. In 35 years' time we might have beaten cancer, but we won't have beaten death. Learning how to accept it is still a difficult subject.

Belfast Telegraph


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