Brittany Maynard and Difficult Choices
On November 1, Brittany Maynard, age 29, ended her life by choice because she was dying from an aggressive brain cancer. I am in awe of her courage in making a strong public case for death with dignity. I didn't know Brittany, but her story and her struggle hit close to home.
I had a friend named Kathy, who I met in Brownies in the 2nd or 3rd grade. As the years went by, Kathy never ceased to amaze me. She played the ukelele, did synchronized swimming, jazz dancing, and stand-up comedy. She was the maid of honor in my wedding, and always sent me a gift on my anniversary. We stayed in touch and visited often. Then in 1995, she called and asked if I was sitting down. "I have a brain tumor," she said. "It's going to kill me." I was speechless, but we sat silently on the phone together for a long time.
Kathy endured surgery that severed her optic nerve, leaving her blind. She developed incontinence and became unable to walk. Her spirit rarely flagged, and toward the end, she even threw herself an "I'm Not Dead Yet" party.
Then, one day before her 43rd birthday, she died. Her funeral was a packed and tearful celebration of a brilliant life. In addition to Kathy, I have lost a client to brain cancer, as well as another friend, and a supervisor and professor. I am also a cancer survivor. I know that the choices we face when threatened with a serious illness are many and complex.
There are no easy answers or "one-size-fits-all" solutions. Nor should there be. On my cancer journey, I dealt with difficult side effects of surgery, chemo, and radiation, and endured about 4 years of chronic pain. Elements of healing included my husband’s steadfast support; Qi Gong and Tai Chi; swimming laps, physical therapy, meditation, mental health therapy, a Facebook page full of good wishes from friends, and my dear dog Daisy, who stood guard tirelessly.
If my cancer had been Stage 4, as Brittany's and Kathy's was, would I have chosen a more rugged journey of treatment? If medical science, and my healers, told me I had terminal cancer, I know that I would absolutely want to have the option to end my suffering and to be present to the reality of the end of my life.
Brittany had begun having seizures from her brain tumor, and she knew what lay ahead of her. She and her husband moved to Oregon, in order to have the option to terminate her life legally and with the assistance of physicians. What I see in her choice to end her life, and to do so publicly, is strength, and compassion for her body, enduring a deadly invasion. I also see respect and selflessness toward her devoted husband and family, all of whom agreed with her decision.
Allowing and supporting a choice for medically assisted, legal early death for the terminally ill is a conversation long overdue in the U.S. We deserve to have this conversation in a spirit of acceptance and tolerance, and not attack and blame, because we hold many diverse views. At the intersection of personal choice and the public good, Brittany has given us a gift and a model of understanding how this can work.