Intimations of Mortality

One or two of you have noticed that the blogging is less frequent, but today is my birthday, so maybe it’s time for a progress report. And on the subject of getting older, I felt a little frisson when I filled in an online survey and realised that I have crossed the divide into the next age group. No longer 46-54, but 55-64 —

It’s been a busy birthday. The celebrating will have to come later: we are moving to LCH in about a fortnight; so we are frenetically decorating, getting carpets fitted, starting to move chattels over, chucking out, tidying — and there’s plenty more to do! Busy is good. The preoccupation with the breast cancer experience is just starting to take its place alongside my other preoccupations, rather than being overwhelming. I do return to it; in fact I have just submitted 3000 words to the Commons Select Committee Inquiry into cancer screening (I would post my submission on the blog, but it seems I’m not allowed to).  But I have also resumed my MA studies, and today spent a happy morning in the school in which I hope to develop my project. I am tentatively working with B. and a few others on developing an INSET package for schools. So I may not be earning anything, but my brain is back in gear.

Or is it — because the most vexing side effect of my ongoing medication is what it’s doing to my head. I have always forgotten things and been noticeably slower at processing information than B; but the memory lapses are worse now; and sometimes I also have trouble with sequences. Get this: my packets of pills (the cause of the trouble) are labelled with the days of the week to make it easy to keep track, I presume. But I still managed recently to take Wednesday’s pill on Tuesday because, despite evidence to the contrary ( = the pill labelled Tuesday almost in my face saying, “Eat Me” ), I was so sure it was Wednesday. Then there are the days when I have entirely forgotten to take the damn thing anyway. And when I was painting the banisters in the new house (very proud of the finished job, incidentally), I found it really quite difficult to keep track of where I was up to. Had to talk myself through it. But hey, there are an awful lot of surfaces on  banisters and spindles, aren’t there?

Actually, my biggest fear is not that my difficulties are caused by oestregen deficiency. If that’s the case, I may only be suffering as many menopausal women do. But what if these are early signs of dementia? Unlikely but possible. My Dad’s decline was not pretty and I so do not want to go there – not now, not ever. How awful to sense that you are losing it. At present I don’t trust myself to remember things, so my list-making has become anxious.That’s bad enough. No wonder poor Dad was so easily stressed.

There have been two news reports in the last two days which I have found rather odd. One told us that half of breast cancer deaths occur in women over seventy. The second told us that the number of cancer cases worldwide is expected to rise dramatically over the next generation, principally due to the ageing global population. Both of these bulletins were reported as if they were cause for serious concern – and in terms of the economic impact of such levels of incidence, maybe they are. But I think there is something missing here, and it’s this: the candid acknowledgement that we will all age and die. When the average life expectancy was thirty-five (in the Elizabethan era, say), people didn’t live long enough to develop cancer – or dementia –  in the numbers that we are now seeing. Plague, or appendicitis, or any number of other conditions now easily treated would have carried them off. So I question whether cancer is actually on the rise. It is also diagnosed more readily these days (and don’t I know about that).  I think it would be far more worrying if less than half the breast cancer deaths occurred in women over seventy, because the corollary would be that more younger women were dying before their time.

I’m not suggesting that we should write the over-seventies off and not offer them the best treatment choices available to prolong their lives and (maybe even more importantly) the quality of their lives. Nor am I suggesting that as we ourselves age we should just give up and not look after our health. I do hope and expect that at seventy – and well beyond – I will still have people and things I want to live for. But I am going to die, if not at seventy, then at eighty or ninety. I can’t choose what will get me in the end. It’s quite likely to be dementia or cancer, however much I may rage against both. Same applies to you. And reports which imply that something is wrong when the old get ill encourage us to think that we can all go on for ever. We can’t. It’s the circle of life. This shouldn’t be news. Time to get real.