Things I Just Don’t Understand

As we get older, past our sixties and into our seventies, (our dotage?) I guess it’s only natural that we think more and more about our mortality. The fact that we aren’t going to be around forever. At least I know I do. And there are some things I just don’t understand. Mostly peoples abject fear of the inevitable conclusion of life.

In the morning when I wake up and put the coffee on to brew, I log into the computer, bring up the iTunes web site and listen to NPR’s Morning Edition. It gives me news and interesting stories. This morning there was a story about a new drug called Zaltrap that was approved as a kind of last-chance therapy for patients with colorectal cancer. Studies suggested Zaltrap worked almost exactly as well as an existing drug called Avastin. In fact, the main difference between the two drugs seemed to be the price. Zaltrap costs about $11,000 per month (emphasis mine) — about twice as much as Avastin. The story goes on about how Sloan-Kettering decided not to buy Zaltrap and how the manufacturer cut the price in half to try and get them to buy it. But here’s the thing about this story that bothers me.

The two drugs seemed to worked equally well. Both extended life by 1.4 months. But what if Zaltrap had worked slightly better than Avastin? What if it had extended life by, say, an extra week?

Now, extending life by 1.4 months or possibly an extra week? What the hell for? What will the patient do in that extra six weeks? Is the quality of their life going to be improved? Are they going to be pain free during that time, or are they going to puke all over themselves from the side effects of the drugs? Would you take either one to get another month and a half of life?

The answer for myself is no. If I was told right now that I had cancer or some other terminal disease (and isn’t life ultimately a terminal affair?) the only thing I would do would be to find the best source of heavy-duty narcotics to see me through to the end, even if that source was a street vendor of high-grade black tar heroin. At that point in my life I’m really not going to be too concerned about getting addicted to the stuff.

I’ll be 71 in a couple of months. I’ve had a longer life than my mother by nearly 20 years. I’ve lived longer than three of my six brothers and a much loved sister-in-law. During my life I got to live out a lot of the dreams of my youth. My brother Gary, my sister-in-law Jude and my friend Frank Hilson all suffered from cancer that eventually killed them in about a year of being diagnosed despite undergoing chemo and radiation therapies with side effects that, in my mind, anyway, intensified the suffering it was intended to relieve. For me it’s all about the quality of life, not the quantity. So I just don’t understand why people would opt for a month and a half of prolonged suffering. Not me.




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3 responses to “Things I Just Don’t Understand

  1. We must do everything to fight death, and your doctor is going to be right there with you in this effort! Unfortunately we don’t tend to look at the quality of life, or the cost, or the suffering. We don’t tend to look at anything about death if at all possible so our approach is far from sensible a lot of the time. As a nurse you can imagine some of the stuff I’ve seen go on.
    I’ve threatened to tattoo DNR (do not resuscitate) on my chest when I reach 65 😀

  2. Andres Espino Dennison

    You are exactky 10 years older than me! My B-day is in May.
    Tho people so not actuallty say it there are 4 things i can think of why people fwear the ;ong sleep. LOL

    One they fear the probable pain of that exoerience. Second no one really knows whether there is life after death in spite of all the worlds major religions and anecdotal evidence which says that there is. Third they fear being separated from loved ones.. hopefully they have some. And last they have regrets. Reghrets for things they failed to do or things they did in life and wish thy could change. Like they say.. “Life is full of Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda!”

    For me it is the last. I hate the thought that my existance here on this rock may be futile and leave nothing to show for it. And so this last project n my life is to try and leave some kind of legacy in the last 15 years.. give or take;;; that I probably have left.

    I sure hate the “Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda” part.

    And at the end, NOBODY, ever says, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office.

  3. Richard,

    I turned a corner a few years ago, too. I suppose the end of a thirty year relationship would make anyone take stock of themselves, but it was more that I had finished one chapter and opened to the next. I’ve lived pretty hard and I’m happy to be sixty and in good health. I try to be deliberate now, think things through and make every lick count. Of course, I fail miserably, but good intentions count for something.

    My Dad died of lung cancer when I was seventeen. He got just enough morphine to keep him in agony – for fear of addiction – the most asinine and cruel thing I have ever seen. A minister attempted to console my mother by saying, “He must have a clear mind when he meets his maker.” The doctor cowered behind the Hippocratic Oath and the law. Things are better now, but I’ve done what I can to be sure I’m not kept alive just to suffer.

    My thoughts for the future are mostly about my wife, Sandy. I am lucky to have found a true comrade. I want to live as many moments as I can with her, but she is fifteen years younger and I want her to be secure when I am dead. She gives me a reason to hit the nails a little harder and make my measurements a little truer.

    I have regrets about things I wish I’d done, but I take a lot of pride in the things I haven’t done. I didn’t go to Vietnam. I’ve never hated people because of their color or sexuality.

    You know, one of the best philosophers that ever lived was Big Bill Broonzy. I love listening to him.


    The only regrets I have is in how I treated some people when I was younger. When I was in high school I treated one female classmate horribly. Over the following 20 years I spent quite a bit of time pondering the philosophical mysteries of life, aided by the consumption of massive quantities of some very primo dried plant life from various foreign countries, and the harm I’d inflicted on her and a couple of others along the way.

    At the 20th reunion of our class Alison was in attendance and I was able to give her my heartfelt apology. She said, “Oh, well, you didn’t mean it.” My response was, “No, Alison, at the time I DID mean it, and I want you to know that I am SINCERELY, sorry for what I did.”

    A couple of years later I received a letter from her that had gone through a number of hands before it reached me. (Oddly enough, in the small town of Orleans, Mass, pop. 2,000, there were THREE Richard Philbricks, and we weren’t all related, either.) She told me that my apology had altered her life. She said she’d always felt she was a victim, and I wasn’t the sole cause of that feeling. I wrote back that she WAS a victim and I felt bad that my mistreatment had added 20 years to her feelings of “victimization.”

    Oddly, and with the magic of the internet, 23 years after my apology we are still in communication with each other.