I’m not surprised that an Oct. 6, 2014 article by Nicole Weisensee Egan—titled “Terminally Ill 29-Year Old Woman: Why I’m Choosing to Die on My Own Terms” featuring a well-produced video found on People.com—has gone viral.
The video, which features interviews of Brittany Maynard and her family members, is very emotional. Maynard, who was diagnosed this past spring, suffers from a stage-four gliobastoma multiforme brain tumor. She has a very aggressive form of brain cancer, and it is difficult to control its growth. In her video story, she describes how she was diagnosed and relates her understanding that the glioblastoma will eventually kill her. She then relates her fear that this scenario will be “out of her control.”
As I watched the video, I wanted to hug Brittany and shed tears right along with her because I, too, know those fears. I was also diagnosed this past spring with a stage-four glioblastoma multiforme brain tumor.
I can identify with Maynard and her spunky, adventurous spirit. She describes her love of travel. In my profession with The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod’s mercy outreach, I’ve led medical mission teams and worked on relief projects in 11 countries, loving every minute of it. I have seen the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick. I have seen suffering that would make anyone’s stomach turn.
The Hardest Part Is Not Knowing When
Now I face my own prognosis of future suffering. Some days are joyful. Some days the diagnosis feels like a huge weight in my backpack.
The hardest part of a terminal diagnosis is not knowing the timeline. I speak candidly with my physicians and pray that they can keep my tumor under control with the latest therapies to extend my life, one more year, month, day. Someday, I hope my tumor qualifies to be studied in one of the many clinical trials for brain cancer. I’d like to think my situation was part of a cure for someone else.
My doctors have applauded my decision to step down from my physically and emotionally demanding job to spend precious time with my family. I have a husband and three daughters who I hope will always remember me as a strong, thoughtful (but bull-headed) woman, carrying Christ’s mercy and compassion for others in my soul with rich joy and meaning.
Suicide Is Not the Answer to Brain Cancer
And here is where my comparison with Brittany Maynard ends. Maynard chose to move her family to Oregon earlier this year to have legal access to physician-assisted suicide and to receive a prescription for drugs that she has stated she will use to take her life two days following her husband’s birthday, on Nov. 1, 2014. It’s interesting that Maynard steadfastly refuses to refer to her decision as an act of suicide, even though she will, quite literally, take her own life.
Many people who choose assisted-suicide have expressed that they are uncomfortable with the term. Assisted suicide, which means helping someone take his or her own life, has been redefined into the more euphemistic “aid in dying” or sometimes “death with dignity” campaign which has been spearheaded by the well-funded special-interest group Compassion and Choices (previously known as The Hemlock Society).
However well-intentioned, this is one area where the old adage that “Hard cases make bad law” comes into play. To make good policy decisions about assisted suicide for our society, we need to follow the rabbit trail all the way down the hole to see where it leads. Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, warned that “assisted suicide is not progressive, in fact, it puts many vulnerable people at risk, and we have already seen examples of that where it is legal.” Folks concerned about the rights of people with disabilities are worried about this.
Dignity Lies in Love
But there isn’t any dignity in cancer or other debilitating illness. In my own treatment, I’ve been poked, prodded, radiated, chemotherapied, and cut open so many times that I stopped worrying about being dignified quite some time ago. Instead, I prefer to get my dignity by appreciating the dear people who care for me with their individual expressions of love and prayers on my behalf.
Maynard can choose to call her act anything she wants to enable her to feel better about her decision, but that doesn’t change the facts about how she has chosen to die. Dr. Eric Chevlen, a diplomat of the American Boards of Internal Medicine, Medical Oncology, Hematology, and Pain Medicine and director of Palliative Care at St. Elizabeth Health Center in Youngstown, Ohio, once quipped, “Just as rape is not about sex, euthanasia is not about comforting the dying. It is about power. What is intolerable to the (assisted suicide advocate) is not suffering or dying, but not having control over life and death.”
A recent opinion piece in The Atlantic by Ezekiel Emanuel (President Obama’s adviser on The Affordable Care Act) entitled “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” forged ahead in the assisted suicide debate by equating the value of human life with that human’s ability to be productive.
Death Is Always Out of Our Hands
When I was a young mother, my father had a traumatic accident that severed his spinal cord and left him paralyzed from the neck down. The last five months of my father’s life, which he lived as a paraplegic, were filled with utter helplessness. He wasn’t productive in any meaningful way. He couldn’t even shave his own face. Would Emanuel or Maynard find my dad’s life useless? I didn’t. My siblings and I soaked up our father’s presence, realizing that caring for the needy person we loved so dearly showed each of us some unexpected things about ourselves. As writer Cheryl Magness says, caregivers get a chance to grow in compassion, responsibility, and selflessness as they care for those in need.
This will serve me now as I face my own debilitating mortality. Death sucks. And while this leads many to attempt to calm their fears by grasping for personal control over the situation, as a Christian with a Savior who loves me dearly and who has redeemed me from a dying world, I have a higher calling. God wants me to be comfortable in my dependence on Him and others, to live with Him in peace and comfort no matter what comes my way. As for my cancer journey, circumstances out of my control are not the worst thing that can happen to me. The worst thing would be losing faith, refusing to trust in God’s purpose in my life and trying to grab that control myself.
I watched Maynard’s six-minute video. I cried, and my heart broke for her and her family. I pray she changes her mind and decides to allow others to care for her in her illness. I felt blessed that my tumor came later in my life (I’m 51), and I have had the gift of raising three lovely daughters. I want my girls to learn servanthood and selflessness as they care for me. And I also want them to know that, for Christians, our death is not the end. Because our Savior, Jesus Christ, selflessly endured an ugly death on the cross and was laid in a borrowed tomb (no “death with dignity” there), He truly understands our sorrows and feelings of helplessness. I want my kids to know that Christ’s resurrection from that borrowed grave confirms that death could not hold Him, and it cannot hold me either—a baptized child of God!
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