I have lost four family members to cancer.
In October 2016 I lost my mom after a 3-year battle with cancer. Mom could no longer communicate in her last days. Her last few days were very quiet as she lay in bed, constantly sedated by pain medications.
My father died after a battle with cancer the year he turned 55, one month short of his retirement. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer just six months prior and suffered tremendously.
I also lost one of my younger sisters, Diane Carter, to ovarian cancer when she was 50. In the end, there was nothing else doctors could do for her and her demise was similar to our mom’s—her last days were very quiet and spent constantly in pain.
In 2009, two months after Diane’s funeral, my other sister, Patty Wulf, was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. Patty lived in California and I went to assist her in her recovery after a massive surgery soon after her cancer diagnosis. She started on a chemotherapy regimen and really did quite well for several years, never cured but managed.
Patty and I shared a bedroom growing up and talked on the phone often. As adults, we took vacations together with my kids, who lived close to her and thought of her as a second mom. Her cancer diagnosis was very hard on all of us.
My mom was diagnosed with cancer in 2013. She was 81 years old. In her more than 49-year career as a nurse she had seen just about everything having to do with sickness. She had watched both my father and my sister’s lives cut short by cancer. Now, she had another child going through treatment and she knew what the progression of this disease held in store. She was a fighter, she went through chemo like a champion, shaving her head when it became necessary and wearing a wig that we had taken my sister Diane to choose when she was first diagnosed. She called Patty every day just to check in and make sure she knew someone was on her team.
Unfortunately with a cancer diagnosis at 81, there is not a vision of the future that can bring you great joy. So she took her little bits of joy a day at a time, going to lunch with friends when she could, having friends in when she felt up to it. Eventually, mom developed a metastasized brain tumor, went through radiation, and that was the beginning of her end. My mom passed away at her home on October 21, 2016. I was relieved that her suffering was over, but sad that I didn’t have a mom anymore.
Patty passed away at home four months later on February 11, 2017, at the age of 60. Luckily in June of 2016 California passed the End of Life Option Act.
Patty had been maintaining her cancer but some developments came along and she eventually ran out of viable treatment options. Patty had to make a decision: Lay in bed and wither away like our mom, dad, and other sister or maintain some control over how her last day looked? This 2016 law gave Patty the ability to choose when, where and how she would pass from this world to the next. She was ecstatic to have the choice. She had seen her dad, sister, and then mom decimated by cancer and the prospect of having to go that way had just been lifted.
My discussions and experience with Patty cemented my support for medical aid in dying. We talked about faith and God and what mom, dad, and Diane had gone through. Cancer is a progression, and you learn the signs. Patty had an understanding of what was ahead and chose a different path. Our family and her friends were all supportive and intimately understood the pain, exhaustion, and suffering that Patty had endured along the years. No one tried to step in her way. Even mom voiced her support before she died, “If I had a choice, I think I would choose medical aid in dying instead of what’s coming.”
I was with Patty on her final day, as were 12 of her favorite family and friends. Family that couldn’t make the trip Skyped in to say their final goodbyes and we love yous. Two of her best friends prepared Patty’s aid-in-dying medication, which was mixed with apple juice, while Patty enjoyed her last meal. She had a wonderful breakfast of a cinnamon roll, fresh pineapple, and Dom Perignon, per her request. Her last moments were spent being hugged and kissed by friends and family, surrounded by beautiful, fresh flowers. I held Patty’s hand as she drank her apple juice, told her she was strong and brave and my hero, she closed her eyes and 10 seconds later her pain was over. She died peacefully surrounded by family and friends.
Watching four of my closest family members die of cancer has been immensely painful for me. I’ve seen firsthand the contrast between Patty’s death and the rest of my loved ones who have died of cancer. I hope state lawmakers will listen to their constituents and realize the great benefit such a law would be to Iowans. How many people could they help if they passed a law versus how many people are they hurting by prohibiting terminally ill people from making their own decisions and therefore making them suffer needlessly at the end? It’s fine if you don’t want it or need it, but don’t take the option from someone else who may need it and want it