There is so much food for thought in the New York Times Sunday Magazine article by David Rieff, which reflects on his mother Susan Sontag’s death at age 71 from a type of blood cancer, that I almost don’t know where to start. First of all, there is Sontag’s amazing record of survival. In the 1970s, at age 42, she lived through stage 4 breast cancer that had spread to 31 of her lymph nodes, which is a miracle in itself. Her doctors held out no hope. From there, she went on to write her classic book Illness as Metaphor. Then, in her mid-60s, she survived a uterine sarcoma. With those illnesses behind her, she fully expected to beat the extremely long odds against her during her third bout with cancer. She and many of her friends and relatives were surprised when she didn’t.
We all know people like Sontag, individuals who seem to survive illnesses that most mere mortals wouldn’t. In my own family, my stepfather and my father-in-law, both in their 90s, died this year, after repeated close calls over the years. We had so many “deathbed” scenes with my stepfather that it became a family joke that he was immortal. But, of course, his cancer did finally kill him, as did Sontag’s. It is always a shock when people who have outlived so many bad odds do finally succumb.
Rieff eloquently describes his mother’s determination to live, and her steadfast refusal to reconcile herself to death, until the very end. The article also raises some interesting questions about how far doctors should go to help a patient who has made her wishes clear vs. stopping at procedures that may be “medically futile.” The piece is also a reminder that health care in the U.S. is full of inequities. Sontag, a smart, determined, well-connected and well-known individual, with pockets deep enough to finance procedures that insurance companies and Medicare rejected, had a lot more options than a regular person. As Rieff notes, “The number of Americans who can do what she did is a tiny percentage of the population … I cannot honestly say there was anything fair about it.” It always pays to be well-informed, even if you can’t be wealthy.
All in all, a fascinating piece. And I can’t help feeling anything but pure admiration for Sontag’s heroism.
Published On: December 09, 2005