Cancer, Mr and Mrs Douglas and a photo that appals me

Barely seven months ago, as living proof that modern miracles really do happen, a sprightly Michael Douglas announced to a U.S. television audience: ‘I’ve got it beat.’

His much publicised throat cancer had reached Stage Four — there isn’t a Stage Five, not this side of a coffin — before he underwent gruelling treatments which, thanks to a dedicated team of medical professionals, seem to have (touch wood) succeeded.

I’m sure that none among this brilliant team expects pats on the back. Nevertheless, if any of them read accounts of him this week, on holiday in Italy with wife Catherine Zeta-Jones, you couldn’t blame his doctors if they itched to smack the pair of them.

Caught in the act: Catherine this week on holiday in Italy

Caught in the act: Catherine this week on holiday in Italy

Catherine, who had spent months by the bedside of a skeletal man facing death, was photographed brazenly puffing at her ciggies like a hyperactive chimney. Meanwhile Michael, now better known as Lazarus, was spotted looked furtive; his hand curled discreetly over his mouth, covering what looked like . . . oh, surely not!

Was Michael Douglas, really, also smoking? His spokesman is refusing to comment, which may tell its own story. It would be hard to imagine a sharper slap in the face for those who spent the past two years trying to save his life.

All that work — and this is the thanks they get. How many other patients have they tried as vigorously, but failed, to give a second chance? How many times have they seen a wife, like Catherine, or young children, like Douglas’s, walk emptily away from a hospital for the last time?

Ungrateful? Michael Douglas has made a miraculous recovery from throat cancer - his doctors won't be happy to know he's since been pictured smoking

Ungrateful? Michael Douglas has made a miraculous recovery from throat cancer - his doctors won't be happy to know he's since been pictured smoking

Perhaps the very least they might expect, when there is a happy ending, is that the patient feels a smattering of gratitude. Not only towards those who repaired the self-inflicted damage, but also for the all-too-rare warning shot across the bows? I know so many people who have been denied that warning. In April my friend Larry, a veteran of a 40-untipped-a-day habit, visited a doctor for the first time in decades.

Lung cancer, she said. Larry’s first, shaky words upon hearing the diagnosis were: ‘I thought I was bullet-proof.’ His last, shakier, words were exactly three weeks later. Had he had Douglas’s chance to see the largest possible writing on the wall, I can guarantee you this: not only Larry, but his family and home, would have become a smoke-free zone. Larry would have seen to that.

WHO KNEW?

In 2008, 35,260 people in the UK died from lung cancer — and 86 per cent of lung cancer deaths are caused by smoking

So it is amazing that Michael Douglas has not put a country mile between any member of his family and a cigarette. He knows beyond reasonable doubt that his illness was caused by ‘lifestyle’; the only decent response to his ensuing good fortune would be to change it. The idea that either he or Catherine would put their love of nicotine before their love for their two children — who, you’d have thought, have already had more than a lifetime’s share of worry — is disgraceful.

You might say they are grown-ups, so it is up to them; their bodies, their lives, their choice. And so it is. But that’s no reason why we should not say we’d think better of them if they made a different one. Some do take it as a lesson learned. Larry Hagman played J.R. Ewing through a perpetual fog of champagne-induced inebriation until, in 1995 and days from death, he received a liver transplant. Miracle: Larry Hagman (pictured) played J.R. Ewing through a perpetual fog of champagne-induced inebriation until, in 1995 and days from death, he received a liver transplant

Miracle: Larry Hagman (pictured) played J.R. Ewing through a perpetual fog of champagne-induced inebriation until, in 1995 and days from death, he received a liver transplant

Now, as the 79-year-old prepares to reprise the role, he admits to enjoying only ‘the odd glass of wine’, stays fit as a fiddle and every morning thanks a photograph of his unwitting saviour, his liver donor. Far too many others, however, go the Douglas family’s route. George Best, also received a precious liver transplant in 2002; less than a year later he was back to his seven-day binges and three years later, at 59, he was dead. Sad, of course. But hardly for lack of warning.

Also staring their warnings in the face are the pathetic huddles you see outside every hospital side entrance: patients shivering in their nightwear, wheeling their racks of life-saving tubes and drips beside them — all so that they can suck hungrily on the poisons that put them there. If their doctors are not as disheartened as Douglas’s must be, they are saints.

Oh, I know what some of you think: that people like me don’t understand just how hard it is to quit. I do

understand. I was a minimum two-packs-a-day gal who struggled twice to give up, and both times went back — after fully 18 months on each occasion, if you please.

The trouble was, the dangers felt strangely theoretical. It wasn’t until I approached an age when I was seeing people I cared about succumb to cancer that it became real. Then, at the third try, I stopped for good. Similarly, by the time a doctor demanded I drink less, pointing out that my ageing body could no longer tolerate the two-bottle lunches of Ye Olde Fleet Street, I had also seen friends fall victim to excess.

It could be that she is just plain thick. It could also be, however, that miraculous cures like her husband’s create a false sense of security
 

So less of the vino it became. Why is it, then, that Catherine Zeta-Jones could sit and watch everything that her beloved Michael endured — and still pop out for a quick snout behind the metaphorical bike shed?

It could be that she is just plain thick. It could also be, however, that miraculous cures like her husband’s create a false sense of security. There was a demonstration of this on Panorama on Monday, when we saw a ghastly, bloated, sulphuric-yellow woman of 35 called Victoria — a mother of young children — pulled back from the brink of death. She lay in her hospital bed, a mound of self-pity about what alcohol had done to her. Only later did we discover she had been rescued in the same way five years ago. Then gone back on the bottle.

George Best (pictured) received a liver transplant in 2002 but less than a year later he was back to his seven-day binges and three years later, at 59, he was dead

Didn't learn: George Best (pictured) received a liver transplant in 2002 but less than a year later he was back to his seven-day binges and three years later, at 59, he was dead

In a week when we, on a warmer note, saw Matthew Green walk around with a plastic heart, perhaps we are becoming lulled into believing that our top-notch physicians, with their technology, can do anything. We don’t need to take the slightest responsibility for

our own health; we can behave as stupidly as we please; we can indulge in habits bad and worse — just as long as we have these geniuses to pick up the pieces when we fall.

But budgets aren’t limitless, nor is time — so the greater the scientific advance, the greater the need for priorities. We shouldn’t be surprised if the day comes when they agree that, indeed, they can save us — but why should they?

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