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Sometimes ignorance really is bliss


In CP Snow’s 1951 novel The Masters, the head of a Cambridge college lies dying of terminal cancer in his room, blissfully unaware of his condition, says the author Susan Hill in The Spectator. Colleagues are “appalled at the deceit”, but his family insist he should “remain in happy ignorance until the end”. My mother was similarly oblivious to her incurable cancer in the 1970s. “What’s wrong with me?” she asked the doctor, after dropping from eight stone to five. Today, she would have been told: “You have advanced bowel and rectal cancer.” Back then, it was: “You have some ulcers in your back passage, but Mr Black can remove them. Nothing to worry about.”

I was relieved the doctor lied. My mother’s generation never dared say the word “cancer”, as if speaking it “might well bring it upon you”. Even after removing multiple disease-ravaged organs, the surgeon insisted she need not know about her terminal illness. “How would it benefit her?” he reasoned. She lived healthily, none the wiser and feeling “supremely unworried”, for three and a half more years. Then a friend freshly diagnosed with cancer wrote to her for advice about her experience with the disease – alerting my mother for the first time that she’d had it. “The C-word had been not spoken but written, which was apparently even worse”; the disease “raced back” and she died two months later. Today, patients get a mile-long list of “every medical possibility, from definite diagnosis to remotest chance”. But I think there are some who would be better protected from their “grim prognoses”. “Can ignorance not still sometimes be bliss, as it was with my mother?”