Lee Corrina Cano

Lee Corrina Cano is advocating for the option of medical aid in dying in her home state of Illinois. Despite dying two decades apart, Lee’s father and father-in-law both suffered unnecessarily in their last days.
lee corrina cano

“Watching someone you love go through a difficult and prolonged death changes you. It makes you realize that this issue of agency at the end of life is not a technical or legal issue to be debated stoically.”

Lee shared her story in April of 2024.

My father, Bernie, always had a sweet tooth. After being diagnosed with diabetes in his forties, he reluctantly had to change his lifestyle to lay off the sweets. But when he was diagnosed with aggressive esophageal cancer in his early fifties, a series of surgeries and rounds of chemo caused his appetite and weight to diminish. By then any calories were “good calories,” and he could basically eat whatever he wanted to help him gain weight. With his dark sense of humor, he would joke that cancer had cured his diabetes. But his body continued to waste away, and he got weaker and weaker. I was in my early twenties at the time, at my first “real job” out of college, and was lucky enough to work for a company that let me take a leave of absence and go back home to help care for my dad during those final few months.

There came a point where my father knew it was his time. He was ready to let go, and the hospice nurse told us that we should let him know that it was okay for him to die if he was ready. But still, his body continued to hang on past what he wanted, and he continued to suffer for seemingly endless weeks. We just waited while he suffered, asking “How much longer?” He was done; no amount of pain medication was enough any more, and he was ready to be gone.

Time extends with suffering. The day is no longer measured in hours. It gets broken down into seconds of suffering, counted in pained grimaces and strained breaths.

Though the option of medical aid in dying already existed in Oregon, it wasn’t an option in his state. He had no agency to decide when his terminal suffering was enough, and I am still, two decades later, haunted, saddened and angered by that experience. I feel sad that some of my strongest memories of my father are not those of him during his vibrant life, but of the traumatically lengthened process and disturbing experience of witnessing his unnecessary suffering in his last days.

Now all of this has happened again to those closest to me. My father-in-law, at 83 years old, began experiencing worsening health issues at the end of last year. And at the beginning of the year it became clear that he was not going to get better, and he was moved into hospice care at home.

I watched the process repeat. My husband and his mother and sisters went through almost the same excruciating experience as my own. This time my father-in-law, the strongest, most hard-working, entrepreneurial and generous person I have known, became physically reduced to a frail body, barely capable of breathing on his own, and even when he was ready to go and was asking, even begging, for help there was still nothing that could be done. So he continued to suffer, and those who loved him most could do nothing but helplessly watch as he had an unnecessarily extended end-of-life experience, full of suffering and anguish, caused not by the process of dying itself but by laws that govern our ability to decide for ourselves that our time has come, that suffering is too much, that we want to say our final goodbyes on our own terms, in peace.

The process of dying has many facets, and many of them are incredibly ugly and distressing. The movies do not get it right. It can be long, frustrating and terrifying for those sitting vigil, but even more so for the vulnerable human at the center. 

Watching someone you love go through a difficult and prolonged death changes you. It makes you realize that this issue of agency at the end of life is not a technical or legal issue to be debated stoically. The option of medical aid in dying is an issue of compassion and grace, to be discussed and decided by the individual who is dying, with their loved ones and medical advisors, based on their own values and beliefs.

Death is of course inevitable for us all, and we all deserve peace at the end.

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