In January 2016 my mother was diagnosed with stage 5 peritoneal cancer - a type of cancer that was both inoperable and terminal. Initially her oncologist said that without chemotherapy she would have “weeks not months” to live, and that without chemotherapy, there was no hope that she would make her 60th wedding anniversary in January 2017.
After accepting the hope that chemotherapy gave to prolong her life, the initial treatment started in early February, and lasted for a period of nine weeks. Every couple of weeks, Mum would get a report from the oncologist, indicating that the progress was “going well”. However at the end of her treatment, the prognosis was that the chemo had made very little difference, if any, and that perhaps a further treatment of a heavier duty chemo might be appropriate. The Doctor advised this may or may not assist, but would also most likely impact on her health adversely for the duration of the treatment, including the normal chemotherapy side effects (hair loss, nausea etc).
At this stage (April 2016) Mum was 83, and decided that enough was enough - and that the treatment she already completed was all that she was prepared to put up with. For the next period she wanted to just be as healthy as possible, not have the side effects that the treatment would inflict.
Mum wanted to be with the family. However long she had left.
At that stage palliative care was arranged, with a number of doctors assisting her with pain relief and dealing with the side effects of the cancer including (but not limited to) stomach problems, bowel problems, blood clots and sleeplessness. At one stage she was taking around 20 tablets each day for a range of issues that were the result of her cancer.
While Mum was well for a few months she deteriorated very quickly in late August- early September 2016. During this time, the family watched her waste away in pain and discomfort. It got to the stage where she could not walk and even struggled to eat or drink.
Watching someone go through this period has fundamentally changed my life and approach to how much people can suffer despite the best attempts by doctors. “It’s very hard to die” was the palliative care doctor’s candid assessment of her progress during the last part of her life.
Mum knew that at some stage she would get to a point of not wanting to be around. While some people think that this might be at the diagnosis stage of the illness, Mum had quite a few nice months of a largely comfortable existence enjoying the family, and spending up big on the grandchildren.
Toward the end of her life, while she was still of very sound mind, Mum had clearly had enough of the consequences of her illness, and wanted things to end. She asked me numerous times how she could end her life. We all had to back away for fear of being an accessory to suicide. In the end I got the 3am call from Dad saying that Mum wasn’t breathing well and was coughing up blood. No one should see their loved ones suffer like that. Mum never woke up on that day.
For those caring people who think that assisting someone to die with some level dignity is wrong, I would simply ask that you visit families with loved ones at the later stages of their life. Talk to the families involved in caring for their loved ones. Then talk to the people themselves. Most people will know when it’s time.
So take the time. Legislate properly. Have suitable checks and balances in place. Then maybe no one will have to endure the pain and suffering that our family had to.
Chris Kable, March 2017