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A New Kind of Dying

Sudden death gives way to anticipated mortality. A review of Last Rights.
2007This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

Death no longer comes quickly to the seriously ill. Even as health and life spans improve, people also live longer with the debilitating diseases that eventually take their lives. "For the first time in human history, we can anticipate our mortality," says Stephen P. Kiernan in Last Rights: Rescuing the End of Life from the Medical System (St. Martin's). "We can watch its slow approach."

When both Tony Snow and Elizabeth Edwards announced at the end of March that they had been diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer, pundits analyzed the potential political repercussions. They discussed each patient's diagnosis and expected survival time. They praised each for their courage and for bringing greater public awareness to their diseases.

Snow and Edwards say they will resume their regular activities as soon as possible. Thanks to modern medicine, they likely face years of productive living. But cancer will always loom in the background. For Edwards, it is incurable. And for Snow, the average survival time for people whose colon cancer has spread is a little more than two years.

But a fact larger than any political repercussions remains largely unsaid: This is what dying is like now in America.

Edwards and Snow are young and widely known, making their cases somewhat different than the average cancer patient whose illness is terminal. But like the rest, they face a future measured in short months and years. One study found that most deceased patients had been sick three years with the illness that eventually took their lives.

As medicine has become increasingly effective at overcoming certain diseases, Kiernan says, the leading killers are now gradual ones. For example: "Despite decades of research, cancer fatalities in the past thirty ...

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