Cancer and Mortality: Making Time Count

Rebecca Dresser, ed., Malignant: Medical Ethicists Confront Cancer, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 179-194.


All human beings are mortal, and nearly all of us know it. But for most of us, through much of our lives, this knowledge remains largely below the level of consciousness. The arrival of cancer—in our own life or the life of our loved ones—shatters this congenial forgetfulness. Sleeping knowledge of personal finitude is rudely awakened, generally with massive consequences for everyday life.  More than any other illness, cancer is a brutal reminder not only that we are really going to die, but also that we—or someone we love—will be, from this day forward, “more mortal” than others. This chapter, written as my wife of fifty years undergoes chemotherapy for the fourth time in her (our) sixth year of living with ovarian cancer, offers some reflections on how this awareness affects the way we do, can, and (perhaps) should live. It also touches on questions—humanly less important but professionally pertinent—about the field of bioethics and how it should be practiced.

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