My very modern death
Kate Granger is a doctor who, at 31, has terminal cancer. She also has a mission: to break the silence around dying by tweeting from her deathbed
Kate Granger, a young doctor with terminal cancer once thought to have only months to live, is looking at her mobile phone in amazement. For the past seven or eight months, she has been gathering Twitter followers in their thousands. Currently, it’s 11,060 and rising. She has no idea who they all are, but they love her.
One sent her air miles so she could fly first class to New York with her husband; another was possibly responsible for her out of-the-blue invite to a garden party with the Queen last month. “I don’t really understand it,” she says, shaking her head. “Maybe the world likes a positive story? Maybe it’s the whole idea of my dying and the fact that I talk about it openly, with some humour and sense? Maybe it’s that I tell it for what it is, and that helps people to think about what their futures might hold for them? I don’t know.”
Kate, 31, recently tweeted that she is going to live-tweet her death. She doesn’t know when she is going to die – she’s already outlived what she calls her “expiry date” – but she says she is as prepared as she can be. Her Twitter followers (she is @GrangerKate) greeted the news of deathbed tweets with enthusiasm and support, sending in suggestions for an appropriate hashtag, such as #goinggoinggone or #toinfinityandbeyond. (She finally settled on #deathbedlive.) Many asked, “Are you serious?” and she tweeted back, “Deadly.”
Given she has terminal cancer, Kate Granger’s humour brings new meaning to “black”. Her approach to death, too, brings new meaning to “modern”. Working in tandem with Twitter, she has attracted a following on her blog, drkategranger.wordpress.com, musing about life and death. In one post, she asks, “Is cancer inherently evil? I think not...”, admitting that, as a scientist, “I quite admire my cancer.”
In another – titled “Dying – can it ever be a laughing matter?” – she recalls how she had been enjoying a lovely supper with her husband and asked him, “Would it be fat to have another bun for pudding?” and that he had replied, “Yes, but you’re dying, darling, so does it really matter?” She says, “We both then fell about laughing hysterically. It was one of those genuinely funny moments in life where you laugh so hard that you cry, and your abdominal muscles hurt.” See what I mean?
So here we are, in her sitting room in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, England, drinking tea and chatting about her terminal illness as if it were the latest issue of a gossip mag. In August 2011, aged just 29, she was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer usually seen in teenagers – desmoplastic small round cell tumour (DSRCT) – which had spread to her liver and bones.
She had become ill while on holiday in California with her husband, Chris, and his grandmother, first with a niggling right-sided back pain, which she ignored. When the pain became unbearable and she started vomiting, Chris took her to ER. Within days, she was told that “several soft tissue masses” had spread through her pelvis and abdomen, blocking her kidneys, which had stopped working and become filled with pus. Her life changed as quickly as that. She knew from the scans that it was cancer, although not what sort.
She phoned her mum and broke the news – a terrible conversation, she remembers, because nothing had been properly confirmed. Her mum told her dad. The terminal diagnosis happened not long after Kate got back home. She was told the median survival rate for DSRCT was 14 months, which means, statistically, she should have died last October.
Being a doctor, she says that as soon as she heard the cancer had travelled to her bones and liver, she knew she was going to die. “I accepted it immediately,” she remembers. “There was no anger, no bitterness; just a lot of sadness. I was never in denial, not from day one.”
She had just begun to discuss with Chris the prospect of starting a family. That idea of her being a mother had now been crushed, along with everything else. At that point, she had too much else to contemplate to mourn motherhood.
She writes movingly in the first of two self-published, fundraising e-books, The Other Side, about how on hearing the news she asked the doctors and medical students to leave the
Not much of a social media
user before her diagnosis, Kate now sees its potential to change mindsets