When considering the peaceful, humane and dignified ways a person may die, suffering from a grade four glioblastoma multiforme is not one of them. In fact, it might be near the bottom of the list.
I unfortunately know this disease, and the slow, methodical way it kills its victims, all too well. In May 2007, my dad was diagnosed with this incurable cancer.
Initially, my mom thought he had suffered from a stroke when he began to have trouble putting his thoughts together and communicating clearly — they were symptoms she began to notice while they were vacationing in Australia. Upon their return home to the United States, a visit to the family doctor indicated otherwise, and a specialist confirmed the aggressive brain tumor was located above his left eye.
Our hearts were broken.
The cancer was growing rapidly, doctors told us. At the time, they said he might live up to 18 months. But just seven months later, on Nov. 12, 2007, following two brain surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, and a long stint in the hospital to deal with complications, our family lost its vibrant, funny, articulate, intelligent, opinionated and quick-witted patriarch.
While there are many forms and grades of brain cancer, a glioblastoma multiforme is one of the most aggressive and deadly. It ravages the human body. In a devilish way, it steals away all that a person is until there is barely anything recognizable left. The emotional distress and physical discomfort my dad felt in his last few months was evident. He yelled in anger, cried in pain and struggled emotionally in other ways that I will likely never fully understand as he tried to cope with the disease that was damaging his body and eating away at his brain.
In his final weeks my dad, just 62 years old, couldn’t walk, speak or communicate. His bright blue eyes once filled with so much happiness and laughter became vacant. He gave little indication that he recognized his family members or his surroundings. With the help of hospice, we comforted him the best we could.
Since his death, I’ve had time to consider how I might handle receiving a similar diagnosis. Those thoughts recently jumped to the forefront of my mind once again when Brittany Maynard made her own battle public. A much loved wife, daughter and friend, the 29-year-old was diagnosed in January with a cancer similar to the one my dad had — a malignant brain tumor. She underwent surgery in an effort to stop its growth, but a few months later the tumor returned. She was told she had six months to live.
A California resident, Maynard chose to move to Portland, Ore., in June so that she could have access to life-ending medications available through the Death With Dignity Act, first passed by the state’s voters in 1994. A similar law that allows terminally ill, mentally competent residents to request and receive prescription drugs to end their lives was approved by Washington voters in 2008.
Maynard made her battle, her choice, and her support of death with dignity very public when she began to work with an end-of-life choice advocacy organization, to fight for expanding death with dignity laws nationwide. She detailed her efforts and experiences in a widely read and publicized website and blog.
Maynard made it clear that she did not want to die. Many who oppose death with dignity have wrongfully likened her situation to one of a person who commits suicide due to depression. This, however, is not a fair comparison. It was the disease that was slowly killing Maynard — there was no doubt about that. The choice she made was to give herself the option to, when she felt the time was right, end her life on her own terms.
“Having this choice at the end of my life has become incredibly important,” she wrote in an opinion column for CNN published in October. “It has given me a sense of peace during a tumultuous time that otherwise would be dominated by fear, uncertainty and pain.”
On Nov. 1, after suffering from seizures, speech paralysis, headaches and steadily increasing amounts of pain, she consumed a fatal dose of barbiturates prescribed to her months ago by doctors. At the time of her death, it was reported that Maynard was surrounded by her family.
Having seen first hand what my dad had to go through, and what we as his family endured every step of the way right beside him, Maynard’s choice — while not simple — was easy to understand.
Assisted suicide is not always the answer. But the freedom to ask ourselves the question and make the ultimate informed choice when faced with a terminal illness is something we as human beings should absolutely be allowed. I am thankful that the states of Oregon and Washington, the state I grew up in and the one I now call home, have laws in place that put this very personal decision in the right hands.