Would you take a test to know when you"ll die?
Would you take a test to know when you”ll die
11:45 AM on 30th May 2011
My father died at 47, my mother at 53, both prematurely of cancer, and, as a result, I suppose I’ve always been a little worried that my life might not be as long as most. But, at 43, I now have the chance to find out if my worst fears are true, with a controversial new 400 blood test which can supposedly estimate how long I will live.
The new test, which will be available over the counter within a few months, was created by medical researchers in Spain. It measures the composition of the tips of a person’s chromosomes, called telomeres, which scientists believe are one of the most significant and precise indicators of the rate of ageing.
Maria Blasco, of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre in Madrid, who is the inventor of the new commercial telomere test, says it will bepossible to tell whether a person’s ‘biological age’, as measured by the length of their telomeres, is older or younger than their actual chronological age.
The ultimate date: Because of her parents premature death Suzy Greaves has always worried that her life might not be as long as most
The test might offer you a tantalising guess-timate of how long you have to live.
Butis it really a good idea to buy a DIY testing kit that could tell you that you’re not long for this world as easily as you can buy a pregnancytest
Instead of rejoicing over the little blue line in the window that celebrates the creation of a new life, what would it be like to see a little black line of impending doom Don’t get me wrong. I do think contemplating your own demise can be an incredibly healthy and life-changing thing to do.
We often live in a fog of denial about death, pretending we have all the time in the world to make the changes we need to be happy. But when we become aware of the fragility of life, it can act as a wake–up call, encouraging us to live life to the full.
When my mum died five short years after losing my dad, I was living a normal, married life in a small terrace house in Leeds. I had a good job as manager of a translation agency, with a company car and a pension. But somehow I felt I was living the ‘wrong life’.
Borrowed time: Suzy with her parents Sylvia and Gordon Atkinson
I had a long-held ‘pipe dream’ of wanting to be a writer and a journalist, but had somehow drifted into being a corporate drone. However, within six months of my mother dying I had signed up to a three-month journalism course at the London College of Printing, and left Leeds for London. Within two years, I was health editor of a national magazine.
My parents’ deaths created the catalyst for me to stop compromising, make the big leap and follow my dreams. I had learnt first-hand that life can be short, so I decided to go for the full blow-your-hair-back experience. Although I didn’t know it then, using death to inspire your life has turned out to be the latest self-development trend.
One Month To Live: Thirty Days To A No-Regrets Life was a surprise U.S. best-seller, with Kerry and Chris Shook, a Christian husband-and-wife team, posing the question: ‘If you had only one month to live, what would you change’
A blog written by journalist Patti Digh after her stepfather got a terminal cancer diagnosis, asking the question ‘What would I be doing today if I only had 37 days to live’, was recently nominated as best blog of all time.
Contemplating death is also an ancient spiritual practice. Buddhist monks have historically meditated beside a corpse to remind them that nothing is permanent and the route to pain is to try to hold on, to ‘grasp’ at life – trying to make the insecure secure, the impermanent permanent.
In my 20s, reacting to the death of my parents encouraged me to make bold decisions about my career and not to compromise my dreams. In my 30s, contemplating the brevity of life, I changed my career again, created a life-coaching business, had a much longed-for baby, moved to the country, got a dog and sought fulfilment at a quieter, deeper level.
In my 40s, as every year races me towards the age when my dad died so tragically young, I feel the need to go even deeper to live in the present, to let go of the obsession of getting ‘there’ and reaching that mythical place where I will be thinner, richer and happier.
I now appreciate the fact that all I have is the ‘right now’. Contemplating my own death helps me enjoy being in the present moment a little bit more.
I may or may not end up going to an early grave like my parents, but I’ve considered the possibility – and it’s encouraged me to make drastic decisions about what I do with my life and how I live it.
But do I really want to know for sure what my life expectancy is No, definitely not. Because, in truth, I’m not sure how I would react. I hope that I would be stoic and make strong, inspired decisions about how I live the rest of my short life. But I’m also afraid I would sink into panic and hopelessness.
‘And that’s the problem,’ says Helen Nightingale, a chartered clinical psychologist who trains counsellors helping those receiving results from HIV tests. ‘You have no idea how people may react, as everyone has a different belief system that governs how they perceive life and death.
‘Some people may take the test and calmly go about getting their affairs in order; others may be plunged into catastrophic thinking and despair.
‘I hope this new test will come with a huge warning on the box and encourage people to find some kind of support before volunteering to go through the process.’
But what sort of person would volunteer to take this test
HOW DOES THE MORTALITY TEST WORK
The new test for your life expectancy measures your telomeres. Put simply, the longer your telomeres, the longer you may live.
Like the plastic ends on shoelaces,
telomeres protect your strands of
DNA against wear and tear.From the moment we’re conceived, our telomeres start shortening.
When we move into middle age and beyond, their shortening reaches the point where they are no longer able to protect the DNA, and errors start to creep in when the cells divide. This is what causes your skin to sag and your immune system to become less effective. Faulty cells also lead to a growing risk of conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
Telomeres were originally identified by the American physiologist Elizabeth Blackburn, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2009.
‘The person who wants this information will probably be someone who likes to feel completely in control of their life, so they will want to know what to do to change things for a “better” outcome,’ says Nigel Sage, consultant clinical psychologist in cancer and palliative care at the Beacon Centre in Farnham, Surrey.
But he acknowledges that a sense of a ticking clock and thoughts of future threats can generate anxiety. Thoughts of ageing and a limited future may fuel a sense of hopelessness and depression. And if I do have only a few more years left, then why risk wrecking them by feeling hopeless and depressed
Of course, no test can ever really tell you when you’re going to die. Even if you have telomeres the length of a gorilla’s arm, you may still step off the kerb tomorrow and be knocked over by a bus. And we all know of those who are living with an incurable diagnosis and yet who live a long and happy life that proves the doctors wrong.
I recently read an interview with Professor Stephen Hawking, 69, the physicist and cosmologist who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21. The disease, which is incurable, was expected to kill him within a few years. Instead, he’s closing in on three score years and ten – and says his illness ultimately led him to enjoy life more.
‘I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the past 49 years,’ he says.
‘I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.’
I’m also inspired by my life-coaching client Polly Noble. Originally diagnosed with cervical cancer at 24, she is now facing her second diagnosis at the age of 29. The cancer has spread into her lymph nodes and has been deemed ‘incurable’ because having treatment is unlikely make it better.
But instead of retreating into depression and hopelessness, Polly has created a website (pollynoble.com) where she is chronicling her journey to heal herself naturally. She has also set up a coaching business, co-written a book (The Cancer Journey) and made it her mission to ‘inspire, educate and motivate others to make better choices with regards to what they eat, think and drink’. She has also been nominated for Amazing Woman Of The Year by the website Mydaily.com.
She says: ‘Being faced with an incurable disease has thrown down the gauntlet. A cancer diagnosis is the scariest thing that I have ever had to deal with, and I deal with it by staring fear in the face every day. I just get on with it. If you can do that, you can do anything.
‘It kind of gives you permission to throw caution to the wind, go after your biggest dream and say: “I’m going to do what I want when I want and live every moment to its fullest capacity.” ’
I am humbled as well as inspired by Polly, who is facing cancer with a level of courage and creativity that I suspect I could never possess. I hope I never have to find out. And I certainly won’t be taking a DIY test any time soon to discover if I’m right.
Suzy Greaves is author of Making The Big Leap (New Holland, 8.99).