Canada’s Supreme Court is hearing arguments about whether physician-assisted suicide should be legal. Not surprisingly, the issue is heated and controversial.
For most of us, it is an academic debate. We aren’t ill, in chronic pain or diagnosed with a terminal condition. If we are in favor of being able to choose to die, it’s an option we want someday, not now.
But for others, it is a very real issue. These are the many people who right now have to make tough choices about whether to start or continue medical treatments. Together with their families, they are bravely making hard decisions.
That was the situation my brother-in-law faced this fall. In early September, the 59-year-old was diagnosed with colon cancer.
Shortly after receiving that diagnosis, he learned the cancer was also in his liver, and that it was quite advanced. The only option was a very aggressive chemotherapy plan with many likely serious side effects that would severely affect his quality of life, and also even shorten his life expectancy.
After talking with doctors and family members, he elected to forgo treatment and begin palliative care at home. The decision gave him some good, mostly illness-free weeks, during which he was able to tie up his work affairs and spend quality time with family and friends. In mid-October, he died.
My brother-in-law did not kill himself. But he didn’t try to heroically preserve his life either. Given the information available to him, and the likely outcome that cancer would end his life — no matter what he did — he calculated the odds and made what he felt was the only sensible decision.
In so doing, he received the support of his family, friends and faith community. We all understood and accepted his course of action, something he greatly appreciated.
Before he died, I asked him about his decision.
“Nobody has asked me to explain it,” he said. “They seem to understand. Many people have written to me about their experiences with family members who made the same decision. There’s a lot of support for that.”
I also asked him if he would consider assisted-suicide, if it was an option. He didn’t discount it.
“I think we are headed in that direction as a society,” he said. “The pendulum is swinging the other way as more people talk about it. I don’t think we are there yet, but we are going more that direction.”
As for dying so young, he acknowledged it was not in his plans. But it was also beyond his control.
“It just worked out that way,” he said. “I got 59 years. Some get more time, others get less. I’d rather think of the opportunities I had in life, and the blessings I’ve received. I’ve been blessed with a wonderful wife and two great kids. My life has been made up of so many great opportunities.”
The important thing, he said, “is to be grateful for the time you’ve been given, to spend the time you do get making it count for something.”
I won’t say his death was easy. The first weeks were relatively good; the last few days were very hard. But I think it is safe to say that, overall, he experienced a good ending, a good death — the kind of death many of us would want to experience, one way or another.
How we can achieve that as a society in Canada — whether naturally, or by other means — is the big question today.
John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.