‘Time to say goodbye’: a British doctor says cancer is the best way to die. Photo: Nic Walker
Cancer is the best way to die because it gives people the chance to come to terms with their own mortality, the former editor of the British Medical Journal has claimed.
Dr Richard Smith, an honorary professor at the University of Warwick, said charities should stop spending billions trying to find a cure for the disease because it was clearly the best option for an ageing population.
He argued that a protracted death allowed time to say goodbye to loved ones, listen to favourite pieces of music or poetry and leave final messages.
Dr Richard Smith. Photo: British Medical Journal
Writing in a blog for the BMJ, Dr Smith admitted that his view was “romantic”, but claimed that the pain of dying could be made bearable through “love, morphine, and whisky”.
However, Cancer Research UK claimed his comments were “nihilistic” and gave little thought to young people whose lives are cut short by the disease. His views were also criticised by the families of sufferers, who accused him of insensitivity.
In his blog, Dr Smith quoted the Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel, who warned that many patients risked suffering a “horrible death, kept at bay by the miracles of modern medicine”.
Bunuel died of pancreatic cancer in Mexico City in 1983, but managed to spend the last week of his life discussing theology with a Jesuit brother.
“Death from cancer is the best, the closest to the death that Bunuel wanted and had,” said Dr Smith.
“You can say goodbye, reflect on your life, leave last messages, perhaps visit special places for a last time, listen to favourite pieces of music, read loved poems, and prepare, according to your beliefs, to meet your maker or enjoy eternal oblivion. This is, I recognise, a romantic view of dying, but it is achievable with love, morphine, and whisky.”
Dr Smith is now chairman of both the medical records company Patients Know Best and the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research.
He added: “I often ask audiences how they want to die, and most people chose sudden death. ‘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’. Death from organ failure – respiratory, cardiac, or kidney – will have you far too much in hospital.”
He concluded: “The long, slow death from dementia may be the most awful as you are slowly erased.”
Dr Smith warned people to “stay away from overambitious oncologists” and said that charities should stop wasting billions trying to cure the disease and “potentially leaving us to die a much more horrible death”.
But Prof Peter Johnson, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, said: “Of course we are all going to die, but 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.”
Readers of Dr Smith’s blog also branded his comments as “ignorant and insensitive”. One woman wrote: “Watching my mother rapidly ravaged by cancer a few years ago, never ever did I think it was the best way for her or us.
“A chance to say goodbye? Her final weeks were made up of endless nurses visits, her anxiety and fear of how it would end, deterioration and paranoia.”