Marianne Turnbull, a retired social worker, is advocating for the option of medical aid in dying while facing a terminal cancer diagnosis. Below is an excerpt of her testimony at the Minnesota House Health and Human Services Policy Committee informational hearing on September 11, 2019.
I watched my mother decline for years and at the time of her death she was actively suffering for over 24 hours. When I remember these scenes I am haunted by images. I am also here because I’ve been told I don’t have much time. I have cancer.
I was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer in September 2015. Known as one of the deadliest forms of female cancer, in part due to lack of an early diagnosis tool, ovarian cancer usually shows up with a variety of vague and non-specific symptoms. It wasn’t until the symptoms were very advanced that I was finally diagnosed with the correct diagnosis. It became quite clear at that first oncology appointment that I will most likely die from this disease. I have already met up with the first frightful statistic that 85% of ovarian cancers will recur and fewer than 20% of women live for five years. In the four years that I have had this disease I’ve been in treatment twice and am now awaiting entrance into another clinical trial. So, I am at year four.
With the help of my medical team, I’ve been able to live with this disease and it has become my new norm. I’ve undergone two major surgeries and 12 rounds of chemo. At this point, there is no cure, only treatments and trials to slow the cancer spread and reduce the symptoms. The treatments themselves can be deadly and the new norms keep bringing on new losses.
I’ve spent many days thinking about my life, contemplating the “why me” and “how could it be?” I’ve spent time grieving the loss of many dreams; the big one now is living a vibrant retirement! I had dreams! However, I learned how to respect this disease, and the cancer is becoming a teacher for me: I’ve learned the value of living right in the present moment and enjoying the simple things that give my life meaning.
Frankly, I regularly contemplate the likely scenario of my death. As it goes with ovarian cancer, at some point in time the chemo will no longer be effective at keeping the cancer at bay. There will be no other options. I’ve done my research regarding deaths from ovarian cancer and have watched women in my ovarian cancer support group cope with the natural progression of the disease. I’m watching my friends die just like the stats say. There is no telling how long the demise will last. Weeks, months? It can be grim, even with the best palliative medicine.
I want to live for as long as I possibly can. I want medical care that can ease my pain and allow me to be in relationship with my children, family and friends. But, when the time comes, I also want to have a good death. While I am still able to speak for myself, I want to be able to say good-bye and die peacefully rather than deteriorate to the point that doctors sedate me to unconsciousness while my family watches me slowly dwindle.
I can’t know right now what I will want or need in the future, but my end-of-life decisions should be a private matter. Minnesota law makes it a crime for me to have the peaceful death I might want, while 1 out of 5 Americans live in a state where medical aid in dying is available. To me, this is unfair. I do not have the means to relocate, find new health care and put extra burdens on my family. The option for a peaceful death should not be based on where I live.
This is very personal and urgent for me. I deserve the same option that other dying Americans have. I don’t know how much time I have before I exhaust all the treatments. All I know is I want to be close to those who matter the most to me right here in Minnesota.
Minnesota lawmakers will hear disputed assisted suicide bill (Associated Press)
Terminally ill, a retired social worker champions a “medical aid in dying” law (Twin Cities Pioneer Press)
Physician-assisted suicide proposal fuels emotional testimony in St. Paul (Duluth News Tribune)