More of us are living longer, contracting cancer and often surviving it. As the shape of our lives changes, how can we adjust, applying the Buddhist teaching of the value of facing squarely old age, disease and death. 

Thought for the Day 8/6/2013

Some time ago the news that a member of my family might have cancer filled me with terror: in my mind a positive diagnosis would have been a death sentence. But in recent decades the place of cancer in our society has transformed, treatments have improved and yesterday’s report from Macmillan Cancer Support told us that survival rates are rising quickly.

However, when it comes to illness and the end of life there’s no such thing as unalloyed good news. Living longer means that many of us can expect to contract cancer at some point and more of us will survive it. The Health Service will face extra costs while individuals will face the medical and psychological challenges that come with surviving cancer or caring for someone who has.

On yesterday’s programme an oncologist questioned how well equipped we are to deal with the after-effects of cancer and its treatment. We seem to find it easier to address the physical consequences of illness than to think about the psychological ones, even though these are often devastating. In working with people experiencing chronic pain and illness, I’ve seen how many of us get angry when doctors fail to produce a full recovery, or fall into anxiety and depression. The oncologist suggested that, behind the difficulties we experience individually and as a society lies the taboo that still surrounds death itself.

Buddhism teaches that living fully and authentically means seeing the impermanence of everything we experience and facing our mortality. In other words, it counsels us to turn towards difficulties, rather than rejecting them. The Buddha called old age, disease and death ‘divine messengers’ who tell us that these are inescapable facts of life. We encounter them constantly, only to ignore what they’re saying. Heeding their message, the Buddha suggested, will lead us to trust in things that bring lasting fulfillment, rather than those offering temporary pleasure or illusory security.

I see this attitude of turning towards difficulties in people like the Buddhist friend of mine who suffers intense back pain, but encourages herself to experience it fully, accepting her body’s frailty. She’s one of the happiest people I know and also one of the kindest. Such examples convince me that changing our attitudes to old age, disease and death is important for our individual wellbeing. And as more of us live longer, extending the stage of life in which illness is more prominent, I think it will become increasingly important for our society as a whole.