Julia Manning for the Daily Mail, 20 August 2012
There is a mixed response to today’s report in the Guardian that the number of older people living with cancer will treble by 2040. As cancer is much more prevalent in the elderly and more of us are living longer this isn’t a terribly surprising revelation. However there is a story within this report that is worth more consideration. The biggest increase in cancer will be experienced by women who smoke. At the moment, 319 women out of every 100,000 develop lung cancer; this is set to rise to 813 per 100,000. Most cancers are sporadic and we have no idea what the cause is, but smoking is a no-brainer: every cigarette you smoke raises your risk of developing lung cancer. So my question is this: why the indifference?
I once asked a friend of mine who spent 30 years as a psychiatrist what was the most significant change that he had witnessed during his time of practice. His answer was the “rise of indifference”. People seeming not to care or be concerned, about their habits, about their appearance, about the risks they took. In an age when we have all bemoaned the increasing propensity of government and institutions to be more risk-averse, many individuals seem much more inclined to both live dangerously and expose themselves (often literally when it comes to scant clothing). One reason might be that with a free NHS, people think that whatever they do, if they incur injury there is a service that will treat them and get them back to normal (known as risk-displacement). Whilst the service is free, the numbers show that the NHS can’t work miracles: in 1979 an average of just under 6 men per 100,000 of the population died from alcohol related deaths; by 2003 this had risen to nearly 16 per 100,000 and we know this to be an underestimate as if, for instance, you develop cancer from alcohol consumption, alcohol doesn’t get mentioned on your death certificate.
Maybe the rise is indifference is more deep-seated than risk-displacement however. Seeming not to care can go hand-in-hand with low self-esteem, or a denial of what is important to you in an effort to be part of a crowd, a response to abuse, a reflection of hopelessness or plain selfishness. In any event, it seems to me to be a negative indicator of well-being rather than a positive outcome of freedom, and in this light, maybe the crisis of poor care standards in hospitals or neglect of some children is not so surprising after all. If we don’t value caring this effects both us and those around us. Human beings are relational, caring for ourselves and others is an essential part of our humanity as well as of our well-being. I don’t know if overall women have become more indifferent than men, but we should be alarmed at the increase because a society that doesn’t care ceases to be civilised. Post olympics we won’t go on feeling good if we simply remember the victories, but we will if we emulate the kind and caring volunteers. Then we can achieve an even more important result: the reversal of indifference – and possibly prevent a few untimely deaths too.