You Gotta Die of Something
Very interesting graph published by the CDC yesterday. I found it here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/01/05/sunday-review/declining-lethality.html?src=rechp&_r=0. Since 1958 death from heart disease has gone down by 68%,death from stroke down by 79%, and death from cancer down by 10%. It now looks like heart disease and cancer are vying for first place in the race for What Will Kill You.
But something has to right? Human mortality rates hover at about 100%, despite all the money we’ve invested. The question most of us ask when we’re depressed or facing a tax payment or taking our kid to the 5th 4-year-old birthday party of the weekend is “How long do I have?” A healthy lifestyle and good genes will only get you so far. You have to die of something. The numbers seem to show that a whole lot more people of dying of cancer. Yep. Because cancer is, in a way (please don’t shoot me), a result of aging. Cancer cells are cells that have damaged DNA. As we grow older our DNA gets older and more banged up. If you don’t smoke, run 20 miles a day, take your lipitor and get your angioplasty on time, you’ll continue to live and thus, die of something else. Cancer, probably.
Now I am referring here to cancers in people who are elderly. The world of pure evil that is childhood cancers is a different story. Breast cancer in 40-year-olds is a different story. My point is that the “fight against cancer” is a losing one. It’s like saying “the fight against death”. What we are really doing is fighting against having our lives end in ways we don’t want. We all want to die in our beds with our hair beautifully blown out, our adorable grandchildren by our side, quietly and without fuss of a massive heart attack or stroke, and preferably we don’t want to have to think about it until it’s done. Cancer is annoyingly slow, and both the disease and the treatment cause a lot of grief. Now that we have such great ways to treat heart attack and stroke, cancer looms larger as something to fear at the end of life.
It’s important to continue our search for treatments for cancer. We might even cure a few types in a few people. But we won’t beat it. That’s why to me the more important numbers are the ones underneath that CDC graph: life expectancy. White women get 7.4 years more than they got in 1958. Black women 12. We can all expect to live to at least 70, white women more than 80. Compared with a century ago? When life expectancy was more like 50’s? That’s extraordinary. That’s valuable. That’s more LIFE. What will we do with those extra years? The Buddha is right. If we embrace the fact of death we are released from the fear of how our hair looks or that our high school friends are still skinnier than us or that we will probably get cancer someday. When I’m 81 and blue-haired and mean and subsisting on cabernet and chocolate chip cookies I want to be able to say: “yeah I’ve got cancer but you should see what I did with those extra 7.4 years!”