My story is simple. I was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer five years ago and made a full recovery. Or so I thought.
On 28 January this year, my 57th birthday, I was told it had returned – terminally. At the time of writing, I have a prognosis of five months. I am hoping for a bit more than that, but it is clear I will die within months.
And I will die at the time I select. I respect those who believe it is better to hold on until the very end, whatever suffering that entails. Both paths are dignified. What is undignified is not having the choice.
I have become intimately aware of the debate raging around physician-assisted death and the right for people to choose the timing. Recently, Dr Rodney Syme, in The Age and elsewhere, has declared he has, in contravention to laws that should be changed, helped many terminally ill people end their lives.
Dr Syme is taking risks as he fights for decent and enlightened change. His advocacy has inspired me.
Dr Syme has, for the first time, admitted he gave a man called Steve Guest the drug Nembutal and the information on how to use it to end his life about 10 years ago. The case has eerie parallels for me. I have the same cancer Mr Guest suffered, and I even had a holiday house at Point Lonsdale, where he lived.
In the time I have left, I believe I must do what I can to fight for everybody’s right to freedom of choice to control life’s end process if facing a terminal illness.
This is not a legal, religious, moral, budgetary or bioethical issue for me, nor do I suggest it should be for you. It is simply about common sense, and compassion for people suffering physically, psychologically and existentially. I will not accept dying at the end of a morphine drip in a drugged state. It would not benefit my family, my friends or me.
I would like my last life scene to be one of great beauty and warmth – and perhaps even of inspiration for those around me and for me.
Many people fear death, often because of a lack of control. For decades we have put the dying, medical practitioners, law enforcement agencies and families of terminally ill people in an invidious legal and human situation. There has been so much unnecessary suffering. Choice is a powerful palliative force, I now know. There is an immediate and direct benefit from having end-of-life choice. It can restore some confidence and dignity to those whose circumstances have stripped them of autonomy.
Just knowing I have that choice vastly improves the quality of the life I have left. Dr Syme talks beautifully of this. Indeed, it is believed the majority of terminally ill people who are given the means and knowledge to end their lives actually do not use it.
And now I must face this labyrinthine, unfair system that blocks my right to choose. Some people fret that legalising physician-assisted death would create hazards. There are understandable concerns – for example, that people might be clinically depressed at the time they state they want the option of physician-assisted death or that some might be manipulated by greedy and unscrupulous relatives. But these issues can be dealt with effectively and carefully, as Dr Syme points out has happened in other places.
The reality for me is that after a lifetime of doing my best as a husband, father and member of the community, I now face a life-changing challenge to use the short time I have left to fight for change about which I am passionate. It should be of concern to us all – death is the only certainty.
The mandating of the right to choose end of life for the terminally ill is tragically overdue. I am doing this for my family and friends, for myself and for the entire community. It is also about passing on the experiences and insights I have had through living with cancer during the past five years.
Why have Australia’s lawmakers failed to have the decency and courage to reflect in statute what so many know: that compassionate medical professionals are, in effect, helping suffering people choose the timing of their death?
The politics seems tortured and leaderless. Where are the politicians prepared to drive change? The current situation leaves the medical and legal systems in an excruciating, unconscionable limbo.
I have written a letter to seek a meeting with Prime Minister Tony Abbott. I call on him and Premier Denis Napthine, a vet by background who has surely euthanased a number of animals, to put in place a party position that the terminally ill should have access to physician-assisted death, with appropriate guidelines. I would like to meet with him to offer assistance.
Surely Victorians deserve at least the same respect and compassion as the animals Dr Napthine cared for. My wife and I said goodbye to a loved and dying cocker spaniel seven years ago in our home. The vet administered a lethal injection and my wife held and kissed Blue as she calmly drifted off.
It is wrong that I cannot choose to pass away with my wife’s and sons’ arms around me and a kiss on the head. As it stands, my prolonged death would probably be well-managed – I have a great medical team around me. But days or weeks in bed on debilitating doses of drugs, with me having no control, is not the way I will die.
I will go out of my wonderful life at a time of my choosing, with our dog Missi’s ear in my hand and my family by my side. I have met with Dr Syme, and he has given me the assurance I need around choice, and that helps underpin the calmness and joy I feel as I get to embrace the remainder of my thrilling existence.
To help others facing terminal illness, and to help ventilate and inform the struggle for the right to choose, I am writing a blog, and would welcome comments and questions: pgs28.wordpress.com