How much is one human life worth?

Glynis Knacker has mesothelioma. She has just weeks left to live having exhausted the  mutilating surgery, the gruelling chemotherapy and  the restorative blood transfusions. Her cancer treatments have cost in excess of two million dollars. Now Shepherd Knacker has lost his job along with his health insurance and rightly wonders whether the cancer or the cure has been worse. Glynis’s husband and carer asks the oncologist, Dr Goldman how much time the $2700 a day treatments had actually bought.  “We’ve probably extended her life a good three months” he replied to which Glynis’s husband and carer answered, “they were not a good three months”.

Glynis and Shepherd Knacker are the main characters in Lionel Shriver’s latest ‘provocative novel’ called So Much For That which “takes a hard look at America’s health-care system and asks the uncomfortable questions: how much money is one human life worth?” The book really confronts the suffering of cancer but does make me wonder if the cure is worse than the disease for Glynis does not want to give up and battles against the cancer and “refuses to let go”. Glynis’s support group talks about ‘hanging tough’ , ‘surmounting the odds’ and regards ‘dying’ as failure. Instead Glynis suffers for over one year from the effects of the surgery but also from the chemotherapy. The woman who was proud of her looks loses them along with all her body hair. She cannot eat and needs enemas if she is to open her bowels. She is prone to infections and lies watching the ‘food channel’ because it is all she can focus on and in the end she dies anyway.

Other authors have tackled this death denial culture such as Barbara Ehrenreich in her novel Smile or Die. As a breast cancer patient, Ehrenreich was encouraged to think positively and embrace cancer with a smile. Her analysis of such sugar-coating is that this comes at a great cost which is the denial of one’s true feelings of fear and anger.

In So Much For That Glynis has only three weeks left to live and her oncologist is suggesting that the dying woman avail herself of  a new experimental drug at the outrageous cost of one hundred thousand dollars for one course.

Much public debate needs to take place and such books are hopefully facilitating this.


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