My husband, Stanley Dushman, died in November of 2009 at the age of 79 from pancreatic cancer. The last months of his life were very difficult for us both, he with pain and me with anguish watching him suffer. Stanley and I were married for 54 years. I wish I could have done more to help relieve him of his suffering.
It took only 19 months from diagnosis to his death. Before he got sick, we loved to travel, he played racquetball and golf regularly with friends, and he was working part time as an optometrist (not yet ready to fully embrace retirement). He was full of life and very active.
Our learning that something was wrong was a total fluke — symptoms of pancreatic cancer often don't occur until it is advanced. We both fell ill with bad colds while on vacation and decided to visit a local doctor, who ran blood tests on both of us. When she reviewed the results, she told us that there was something concerning about my husband’s blood count and recommended we see his primary care physician as soon as we returned home.
Stanley was diagnosed with stage 2 pancreatic cancer and within a month he had the Whipple procedure, a complex and enormously invasive operation, performed to remove his tumor. It took nearly three months of Stanley being in and out of the hospital for him to recover to try chemo next. He couldn’t start chemo until his stomach motility started working so he was being fed through tubes out of his abdomen during this time. Unfortunately, he got an infection from one of the tube sites and had to endure a surgery to resolve it. This delayed the chemo and allowed the cancer to metastasize, although we didn’t learn that until much later.
Four months after the Whipple surgery, Stanley was finally able to begin chemo — three weeks on, one week off — all while feeling lousy and continuously losing weight. We thought we had beaten the cancer, but that joy only lasted five months. Soon, Stanley started experiencing tremendous pain and weakness.
We once again tried chemo but it was ineffectual. Desperately seeking a solution, we next tried an experimental drug that cost us $1,100 out of pocket per shot (since it was not covered by our insurance). That too had a disastrous outcome. It became evident that nothing was going to help — his cancer had metastasized.
Stanley’s last four months of life were full of agony, for him and for those of us who loved him. His pain, discomfort and other symptoms created mental anguish, which sometimes manifested as embarrassing incidents for him. He had always been a vital, healthy and independent person so this new way of being was incredibly distressing to him.
We had hospice care at home, but his pain was mostly unmanageable. He would state, “If I just don’t move, the pain is a little better.” The increased amount of opioids would just put him out, which left me and our three sons unable to have meaningful conversations with Stanley.
Towards the end he had bed sores that couldn't heal in spite of the nurse's salves. When I touched Stanley’s arm, his skin came off in my hands. He was in terrible pain. He did not want his life to end the way it did, but there was no option for a peaceful end here in Illinois.
Watching Stanley suffer at the end of his life is the most terrible pain I’ve experienced. Why must terminally ill Illinoisians suffer unnecessarily? I’ve watched loved ones die in pain and, by contrast, a friend die in California who used their medical aid-in-dying law. His death was peaceful and swift, with his wife at his side. She is left with gratitude for his peaceful passing. To make people languish in their pain and suffering just doesn’t make sense. It’s inhumane. I urge Illinois legislators to pass a medical aid-in-dying bill to allow terminally ill residents of our state this compassionate option.