Pain: the Price of Compassion

Recently I’ve read a number of articles suggesting that it is ‘scandalous’ this or that cancer drug is not being made available on the NHS, or that it is somehow morally wrong that not more is being spent on research into a particular cancer. Of course it is sad when someone we know and love has a deadly disease and we can do nothing to alleviate their suffering; but we have to recognize that cancer is not the only life-threatening disease, its treatment is very expensive, and the NHS cannot afford everything that might be possible without cutting back on other, equally important, treatments. But there is another aspect to this question that isn’t often addressed. We have a problem with pain.

Many people seem to think that there is something wrong with pain. We should not have to experience it. It is unnecessary, degrading. I agree that pain is not, in itself, desirable or ennobling, but I would argue that it is part and parcel of being human and, as such, unless deliberately inflicted by one person on another, can never be degrading. To me, it seems perfectly acceptable to alleviate pain with whatever helps medical science can provide, but get rid of it altogether? I doubt whether that would be possible, even in the case of physical pain. As for emotional pain, who could avoid that without becoming an unfeeling monster?

Often it is not the pain we feel ourselves but the pain of someone we love that troubles us. Much of the so-called ‘assisted dying’ debate has centred on the horror of watching a loved one suffer and wanting to spare them (and ourselves) that pain. I am beginning to wonder whether that apparently very laudable aim doesn’t have within it the seeds of something much less praiseworthy: the desire to control life and death according to our own notions of what is right or wrong. The Catholic Church is very clear in her teaching that extraordinary means do not have to be used to keep someone alive. She is equally clear that we do not have the right to deny life to the unborn, the disabled, the elderly, those society does not value (e.g. girls in certain countries of the world; those whose ethnic or religious identity is shunned). That is a tough teaching, but its toughness does not make it any less true— and there’s the rub.

Many people dismiss the Catholic Church’s teaching on life-death issues simply because it is the teaching of the Catholic Church. Although I myself could put up a ‘religious’ argument for the acceptance of pain in our lives, I would prefer to argue my case on the grounds of our shared humanity. It is human to experience pain, both physical and emotional; and experiencing pain teaches us, quite literally, the meaning of compassion. It is a price I, for one, am willing to pay.

In case anyone thinks I am unaffected by these questions, it may be worth mentioning I have metastatic leiomyosarcoma, which the UK Sarcoma site, with classic British understatement, describes as

widely regarded as an ‘orphan’ cancer, which means that it has few relationships with other more common cancers. It is also a rare disease and thus active research into new treatments is not always seen as a priority by many in the scientific or pharmaceutical world.

The chemotherapy drug I have been treated with for the last six months is no longer funded by the Cancer Drugs Fund.