Quality of death in real time

Mornings are when I catch up on current events and scan social media for trending topics.  While the news streams live on my TV in the background, I give cursory review to the headlines along my Twitter and Facebook feeds and The Huffington Post.  I’m aware of the dubious nature of those sources with regard to authenticity and content, but nine times out of ten, by the time my husband and I sit down to watch Nightly News, I’m surprisingly well versed in the journalistic “hot topics” of the day.

This morning, before I’d even made it through half of my first cup of coffee, I came across an article that stirred my consciousness and pushed my emotional barometer towards its most uncomfortable point.  The headline read “Terminally Ill 29-Year-Old Woman: Why I’m Choosing to Die on My Own Terms.”  The bait worked well, and I eagerly clicked on the link.

The story unfolded about  a young woman named Brittany Maynard, a newlywed diagnosed with a terminal form of brain cancer this past Spring.  Her initial treatment was aggressive, but her cancer rapidly progressed.  Her prognosis is now considered grave and the side effects from her disease are exceedingly painful and debilitating.  Her death, predicted by her doctors to occur within a few short weeks, will be “a terrible, terrible way to die.”

Though incredibly sad, it’s not Brittany’s back story prompting this post.  Rather, it’s her current status that is resonating so deeply with my emotions.  You see, once she was deemed terminal, Brittany researched her further options for treatment, and ultimately made the decision to actively end her own life in just a few short weeks.  Brittany and her family moved to Oregon, one of five states in the US where assisted death with dignity is legal.  Her plan is to obtain a prescription from her doctor for a lethal dose of medication, which she will take at home, and she will die surrounded by her family and loved ones.

Brittany is using her remaining time to be an advocate for death with dignity in her home state of California (where the process is currently not legal), as well as for Compassion and Choices, a nonprofit organization committed to providing a quality of death to patients facing end of life choices.  She will launch an online video campaign starting on Monday designed to fight to expand death with dignity laws nationwide.

I read the article with a quiet sense of awe and a mixture of compassion, sadness, inspiration, and empathy.  Here, was a real life and real-time example of the question I’ve asked numerous times: “How can we maintain a dignified death for cancer patients?”

As a veterinary oncologist, I deal with death on a regular basis.  I’ve written numerous articles on the difficulties I face in talking about death with pet owners and my concerns about how to best provide a quality of death for my patients.  I in no way wish to discredit Brittany’s struggle by comparing my profession to her situation.  Though I am a veterinarian, I will always hold human life in a higher regard than animals.  However, I am compelled to capitalize on the opportunity raised by Brittany’s story to further the understanding of the complex topic of death with dignity as it relates to cancer.  Whether we speak of animals or people, the strains faced by those dealing with a diagnosis of cancer are so similar.

We dedicate the month of October to raising awareness for breast cancer, and by honoring and commemorating stories of survivors who bravely battled this horrific disease, individuals currently fighting against it, and those who succumbed to its aggression.  This is an invaluable endeavor, especially when we consider not too long ago that a woman diagnosed with breast cancer was stigmatized with shame.  It’s remarkable what an open dialogue has done to demystify and to humanize patients with this terrible disease.

As such, I issue a challenge people to step outside of their comfort level, and recognize it’s equally as important to celebrate the difficult topic of death as it relates to cancer, as it is to honor the more obvious success story.  Death is not an easy thing to talk about, but if we work on it together, we can, at minimum, ensure individuals like Brittany, die with dignity, respect, and with the merit they deserve.

More about the Brittany Maynard Fund and the story inspiring this post: The Brittany Fund

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