Don’t ask how long

Don’t ask how long


Don’t ever ask “how long do I have?”  Never ask, for yourself or anyone else, how long you think you or they might have, after receiving a diagnosis of cancer.

Amazing communications go on between head and body. Back in the first half of my career, while in Sydney, a good friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer. When she asked, “how long do I have?” She was told, “one year, if you’re lucky.”

From that day on, she kept calculating, as the months went by, what percentage of that year she had left. When winter was over (and winters are short in Sydney), she gave away all her winter clothes.  She stopped buying new clothes and making plans for beyond the year. She died just about exactly a year after her diagnosis.

I make a point of encouraging all of my clients to plan well ahead. Michael was a keen gardener, and although he was in his late seventies, he still tended his large vegetable patch and enjoyed the proceeds. He was diagnosed with advancing prostate cancer and after a while, he began to wonder why he continued to tend his garden, and if he would be around in the months that would be required for the plants to grow. I insisted he should keep sowing the seeds, and he kept giving me the next seasons crop, with a wry smile of acknowledgement.

Beverly and Jonathon had saved and planned to take a cruise after he retired, taking in many of the ports of Asia. Then, in May, Beverly was diagnosed with liver cancer and was told she only had a few months to live so they stopped planning. I had words with them.

“Go!” I said. “Keep on planning, and go.  You have always wanted to do this, why stop now?  Go right ahead and book your ticket.”

“But how can we go, I am not well? We were planning to leave England in October, which is five months away. They say that is ore months than I am likely to have left.”  I bullied.  They agreed.  They planned and got more and more excited as the weeks went by.

Perhaps the fact that I felt she would be able to do it encouraged her and increased her own self-belief. I pointed out that there would be doctors and medical staff on board, there always are on large cruise ships. She would have a wonderfully relaxing time, no shopping, cooking or housework.  Secretly I figured that if she didn’t make the departure date Jonathon would almost certainly be able to arrange a refund, so I felt that no harm could be done. They made the departure date.  I was part of their ‘Bon voyage’ party, after which I received emails and photos from each port at which they stopped.

The mind is a wonderful thing, and powerful almost beyond the belief of many people. If you are wise you will use that power. Don’t believe their forecasts, after all, they are only statistical averages at best. Though sometimes they can be correct, after all, someone must be on the midline.

My wonderful Aunt was diagnosed with cancer late September. The doctor didn’t tell her anything. In fact, he told her she was clear. He then phoned me to tell me that he had her on morphine.

“Morphine?  Why?”

“Because she has cancer,” he said.  He wouldn’t tell her and advised me not to, but of course, I did. Many years earlier we had agreed that if anything like that occurred to either of us, the one would tell the other.

I did ask him, “How long?” and was told that my aunt had four months to live. This I did not tell her.  Amazing things can go on between people who are close and used to sharing. She and I never talked about dates, but she passed on almost exactly four months later.

Her mother, my grandmother was a lively, fun and feisty woman. I only knew her for the three undergraduate years that I was at Imperial. She had developed cancer a few years earlier, around 1955. No treatment had been offered, other than surgery, but we all understood that she had recovered. Ten years later, when I was in New Zealand, she died at aged seventy-nine.

She was forever telling jokes and lively stories. One of her favourites concerned Tuesdays. She had been born on a Tuesday, was engaged on a Tuesday, and married on a Tuesday. Perhaps, more amazingly, her three children including my father were all born on Tuesdays. She frequently joked that she was determined to die on a Tuesday.

Her health was clearly failing.  The family doctor, there were such things in those days, called in on Thursday evening, to see both her and my Aunt.  He was close to the family and worried about Gran.

“I’m cancelling my golf this week-end,” he told Aunt. “You could well be needing me in the next few days.”

“Not at all,” said Aunt. “You go ahead and have your golf week-end, she’ll still be here when you get back.”

They argued it over for a bit but Aunt won, adamant that the doctor’s services would not be needed over the weekend.

He was back on Monday and surprised to find Gran still alive and able to crack a joke.

That night after they had all gone to bed, Aunt was woken by a slight noise from Gran’s bedroom.  She went in to see her.

“What time is it? asked Gran

“12.30,” replied Aunt.

“Ah, you mean it’s Tuesday?”


And Gran closed her eyes, I like to think with a smile of triumph, and quietly passed away.


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