No one said we should give up on cancer

A blog post by Richard Smith on the website of the British Medical Journal is currently causing quite a stir, mostly among people who have probably not even read it. Somewhere someone glossed over Smith’s blog, spotted the words “let’s stop wasting billions trying to cure cancer”, pulled them out of context and turned them into a spectacular headline. Newspaper and website editors and radio producers across the globe picked up on it and (faux mass) outrage among the people followed.

But did anyone remember visiting a website that looked like the one pictured below? No? Let me fill you in: it’s the original piece.

Richard Smith: Dying of cancer is the best death

There’s so much misinterpretation of this blog across mainstream media, it’s stunning.
So please, read the original, not the clickbait. Richard Smith did not write: “let’s give up on cancer” or “cancer is great”, nor did he write “let’s stop spending money on researching possible cures for cancers,” yet that’s how his words are being explained across so many media outlets and in turn upsetting people.

If you’re one of the outraged, please untwist your knickers already, because Richard Smith never wrote anything particularly outrageous – lazy editors did.

Every year, billions of dollars, pounds, euros and other currencies are spent on treating people with cancer. Some (probably many) people will be cured, while others will at least have their lives prolonged to achieve some more milestones in life, like watching their children grow up a little while longer. 

For many, and this is the taboo Mr Smith touches on, their cancer treatment will involve gruelling treatments that are no better or worse than the original symptoms from cancer, and these people will not be cured at the end of it, they will merely have their overall suffering prolonged.

You may believe that one should try everything and anything in an attempt to cure someone’s cancer, that the suffering on the way there will be worth it and that even if there’s only a tiny chance of survival, you should grab that opportunity at all cost.

Or you may believe that, on at least some occasions, it might be better to treat just the symptoms and make the patient comfortable until his or her death from the cancer.

From both personal and professional experience I know there are patients who favour the latter, with oncologists who insist on the former. Those patients then have to almost go into battle with their oncologists, because while they are perfectly in their rights to refuse the cancer treatment, they then don’t get the palliative care that would benefit them.

Most patients, however, will blindly follow their oncologists’ advice and if those oncologists are indeed ambitious this will then mean gruelling treatment after treatment in trying to cure their cancer, when they might be better off with palliative care.

That is indeed wasting billions trying to cure cancer while in fact leading patients to a more horrible death. And I do agree we should stop doing that. That’s not calling for pulling any plugs on cancer research, it’s calling for more human care. Is that so outrageous?

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