In a short article, Dr. Allen Frances, a psychiatrist, makes the case for the home being a more desirable place to die He states that, “…there is no worse death than a hospital death”. He emphasizes the unpleasantness of the ICU given the noise, light, strangers, unfamiliar physicians, etc. Ken Murray, MD who has written extensively about how doctors die, has observed that they are less likely to choose to die in hospitals than the general population.
But dying at home is not always a choice. Sometimes family or care givers are not capable of providing the care needed to prevent hospitalization. Quite possibly the medical needs of the patient are too complex or the patient doesn’t want to subject the family to the burden of care.
If you could choose where you spent your last days and hours, where would you want to be? When making your choice it is important to discuss your wishes with your proxy, doctor, and loved ones.
On October 15, 2015, Compassion and Choices posted two videos to honor Brittany Maynard, a 29 year old woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer who took her life on November 2, 2014 through the Oregon Death with Dignity law. In the first video, Maynard talks about her decision and why she was choosing to die. Prior to her death, she tirelessly advocated for a death with dignity law for California that passed in the legislature in September 2015. Governor Brown signed the law on October 5th, 2015. The 6 minute video includes information about the efforts of Compassion and Choices in helping the passage.
In a second five minute video you can watch Oprah Winfrey interviewing Maynard’s husband. He describes Maynard’s last hours of life as being peaceful, loving, and filled with dignity. The video is a rare opportunity to have a window on one of the most intimate moments in life.
Given that we are all going to die, what end would you choose for yourself? Would you want to die in a hospital or medical facility or to die at home? What’s most important for you?
How to do you feel about the growing movement of assisted suicide? If you support assisted suicide, assisted dying, or death with dignity, contact your state legislators.
This article in the Washington Post in September 2015 articulates a clearly chosen path for a breast cancer patient to seek comfort care through a palliative approach rather than aggressive care which was discerned to not bring much relief, extend her life, or offer a good quality of life. The patient, Amy Berman, is a nurse with a clear eyed perspective on her cancer enabling her to choose quality of life over quantity of life. To date, she has had five reasonably good years without the debilitating effects of chemotherapy.
Note that the treatments she received to shrink tumors on her ribs involved radiation, not to kill the tumor, but to reduce it and thereby provide her with greater comfort with less pain. Palliative medicine can sometimes be aggressive in the service of creating a better quality of life. Surgery is another option, although it has not been part of Amy’s treatment.
What is unfortunate is that unlike Amy, many patients are neither medically trained nor sufficiently experienced to see that there are options other than aggressive care. “Curative” (aggressive treatment approaches) treatment is often selected because of a diagnosis that naturally creates anxiety about mortality. Added to this is our faith and hope that technology and medications can solve our problems.
Further pressure comes in the form of advertisements from hospitals and treatment centers. There is increased advertising offering solutions to the dilemma of how to respond to a diagnosis of cancer, heart disease, etc. Some imply that you should seek out “this” or “that” treatment because “you owe it to your loved ones…” that can be seen by some as a thinly veiled guilt trip. Given that some new treatments are showing great promise, the challenge is to sort out what is realistic from what is appealing because it eases our anxiety.
At the very least, the medical establishment needs to make these options clear to patients. It requires that doctors talk honestly with you about the treatments, probability of success, and cost in terms of side effects. Doctors vary in their ability/willingness to engage in this conversation with their patients and their families. An “optimism bias” lurks here that naturally causes humans to embrace the positive solution that they most want. Combine this with doctors wanting to give you hopeful news and there is a potent force to ignore the down sides of aggressive treatment. Do you think that your doctors are capable of talking honestly about your mortality?
You might want to consider reflecting on what you would want if you were diagnosed with a fatal cancer and what choices you would make if you had a 5% chance of recovery or a 50% chance of recovery. It’s hypothetical, of course, but by sharing your thinking you can inform those you care about as to your initial thinking.
Ethan Remmel, a forty year old professor of Psychology who, when diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer, chooses to write a blog. In ten entries he takes the reader from the time of diagnosis to his farewell posting. His blog is a valuable contribution from a thoughtful, articulate, and honest patient enabling us to understand his thoughts and feelings about choices he makes related to his cancer’s relentless progress. Additionally, he shares his struggle with “quantity of life” versus “quality of life”. He enhances our understanding of the positive and negative aspects of chemotherapy and vividly describes the complex aspects of the fatigue he experiences.
One of the surprising things that Ethan mentions is losing a sense of identity because so much of his life, energy, and passion is taken from him by the chemotherapy side effects. It left him lonely, dispirited and discouraged.
Because Ethan lived in Washington State, he was eligible for and received a prescription for medicine that would allow him to end his life. His response to filling the prescription was a common one – just knowing that he could make the choice to take the medicine gave him relief. He was in charge whether he exercised that option or not.
( NOTE: At this point (January 2017) seven states and the District of Columbia have provisions for taking one’s life. Sixteen other states are considering some form of legislation. Public opinion polls in 2015 found that up to 68% of persons responding support “death with dignity” when a person is terminally ill and in pain.)
A posthumous family post at the end of Ethan’s blog describes a peaceful and intimate end which Ethan chose to have for himself. We are the recipients of a great gift in this blog – one filled with insight and care for others. It is a moving display of honesty and courage.
Reading this blog enables you to understand more deeply what a friend or loved might go through when they have treatments with debilitating side effects, and (2) it affords you the opportunity to consider what you would do if you were in Ethan’s situation.
Ask yourself how hard would you fight to “beat” a cancer diagnosed as terminal? Would you opt for experimental treatments? What about costly uncovered treatments? Do you have concerns about how your family would deal with you being ill? Would they be able to cope with the care you needed? How would you know when the rigors of chemotherapy were no longer worth the discomfort?
After you’ve thought about these questions, talk to someone who loves you so they will know what you want. It’s all about the conversation. If you don’t have it, no one will know what you want.
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