An oncologist’s take on life, death and our quest for immortality


You are neither earth, nor water, nor fire, nor wind or space/ For the sake of freedom, know yourself as the embodiment of pure eternal consciousness and witness thereof/ You are unbound pure awareness, supreme eternal bliss, in which universe appears like the mirage of a snake in a rope./ Be happy.

— Ashtavakra

Since the beginning of time, human beings have been on a quest to defy death. Records show the quest for immortality dating as far back as the first emperor of China, Qin Shihuang. He was obsessed with attaining immortality. He sent expeditions to find the secret to it, rumoured to be on the mythical island of Penglai, home to immortals. When this island was never located, he instructed his court chemists to formulate a compound that would give him immortality. His court alchemists concocted an elixir with mercury at its base. As you can imagine, drinking this elixir eventually killed him.

 Many pursued the secret of immortality in other parts of the world. Alchemy was practised regularly during the medieval period in the Middle East among Islamic communities, and in Europe in many religions, as well as by non-religious leaders and cultures. Muslims of the great Islamic Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates developed empirical approaches to it, which served as precursors to the more well-known European alchemy of the early twelfth century.

Later, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Sir Isaac Newton devoted significant time to alchemical studies, believing he could eventually discover the philosopher’s stone, which is thought to grant immortal life. With the medical advancements the scientific revolution brought, however, alchemy fell into disfavour.

‘Harry,’ I said as he (cancer patient Harry McGill) visited the following morning, ‘imagine that only you were granted immortality. What would it be like to see everyone you have ever loved — your friends, your children — all die one by one around you as you continue to linger on for centuries? What would that kind of life look like?’

‘Not good, doc. When everyone that I knew died, what would be the point of living?’ ‘Indeed, Harry. I agree with you! Yet, there are other ways to look at it. Depending on one’s religious leaning, there is the possibility of personal immortality in several theological or metaphysical modes—from physical resurrection and spiritual survival as a disembodied soul to reincarnation. The other possibility is through familial immortality. Our genes are passed down to our children, and to their children after them. Thus, our DNA continues to be part of the fabric of this world, even after we’re gone.

‘We can also leave behind a legacy through the influence we have on others. This form of immortality exists in the impact we have on individual lives—family, friends, students and members of our community. Even after we are gone, that influence remains, to be passed on to their children and their children’s children.

‘And when we die, we release back to the earth the elements we borrowed from it that constituted our body. These elements eventually give birth to new life forms and organisms. The elements of our body participate in the natural world long after we are gone. You can take comfort in the fact that your death will be part of the cyclical process of nature.’

 ‘Like when my friend drops my ashes over where I used to fly?’

‘Just like that, my friend. That one act alone will make you immortal. But I want you to remember all the good you’ve done for those around you… for society, in general. The love and life you’ve given Susan (Harry’s wife) and your children. The good you’ve accomplished through your work. The friends you’ve loved and encouraged. Yours is a legacy any man would be proud of. Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, all of those things make you immortal!’

Harry shifted in his chair, paused a moment, then shifted back. As he adjusted himself again, he said, ‘You’ve told me about what your religion believes and what different people believe. What about you, personally?’

‘Well, Harry, I see my own immortality through oneness—or non-duality—with all existence. This was an idea expressed in the ancient philosophical Upanishads, and rehearsed by Ashtavakra and Sankaracharya, two of my favourite Indian philosophers. Such a state is described in almost every religious tradition and can be realized through meditation.’

‘So, you think that immortality is really something that humanity can achieve in different ways… without existing in this body. But since we’re just here for a short time and then die… what does it all mean?’

‘Harry, despite all of the psychological, existential and philosophical challenges death confronts us with, I believe that death is what makes a meaningful life possible, knowing what little time we have makes every day precious, and each moment sacred. Recognizing that we can pass on something enduring from ourselves to those who will follow us can give us a powerful sense of purpose, even if the brevity of our existence tinges our days with wistfulness.’

Harry said nothing. But I could see in his eyes the kind of wistfulness I had just mentioned.

 I continued, ‘If death is the end of us, does it make life meaningless? Or is it what makes life meaningful? Death is paradoxical in many ways. Death is bad, yet not bad for the person who dies. It is both important to hold on to it, and essential to let go of it. We are justified in fearing death, and yet we should recognize that death is what gives our life meaning.

‘Harry, death is one of our most powerful teachers. Hopefully, the wisdom we gain from reflecting on the impermanence of all around us, and from exploring the ideas of those who have faced and thought deeply about death and loss, will help us die better when the time comes — and to live wiser, richer and more fulfilling lives while we have them. Just as you’re doing, Harry.’

 ‘Just as you’re helping me do, doc,’ my friend said.

Excerpts from Dr Kashyap Patel’s book, ‘Between Life and Death: From Despair to Hope’ (Penguin). Dr Patel is a renowned oncologist in the US who works with terminally ill cancer patients.