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He wanted his suffering to end

In 2021, Canberra man Dan Beacom was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. A former mountaineer, Dan was tortured by the loss of physical capacity and told his partner Lara he was ready to die. Here Lara explains why the ACT must pass a voluntary assisted dying law.  

Dan on a cascade walk in Tidbinbilla

‘Mountain man’ Dan was a 62-year-old introvert and a particularly fit and strong retiree. He always paid his taxes and didn’t break the law. He never tried drugs, didn’t smoke, drank very little alcohol and was rarely sick. He ate mainly fruit and vegetables. After his retirement, he volunteered on camera-trapping projects for Parks Victoria and with Bushwalking Tracks and Conservation at Bushwalking Victoria. He was a politically active and socially responsible citizen who donated to dozens of charities. He was much adored by his colleagues, family, friends and me

The diagnosis

In September 2021, Dan was diagnosed with an acquired brain injury subsequent to glioblastoma (GBM). Glioblastoma is stage 4 brain cancer with a median lifespan of 14 months. Prior to being diagnosed, he was an extraordinarily capable and competent mountaineer.

Post-diagnosis, Dan acquired 11 extensively debilitating disabilities, including cognitive impairment, loss of balance and muscle mass, extreme fatigue, memory and vision loss.

Dan wanted everyone to know he was sick; he didn’t want it hidden.

He experienced facial numbness and had to masticate his food with his fingers. He had to use an adult bib and wide-mouthed drinking cup with straws. He experienced nightmares about his face ‘closing in’ and being unable to breathe. Eventually, palsy meant he was not able to smile, which made him feel locked in. I was terrified that he would choke to death.

Prior to moving to the ACT, Dan had been a resident of Victoria, where he was a vocal proponent of voluntary assisted dying (VAD). He had prepared his Will, had Medical Decision Makers and Powers of Attorney in place, and a very clear Advanced Care Plan which he communicated openly to friends and family.

After first and second-line treatments had failed, Dan realised that he would no longer be able to function with sufficient quality of life. He had wanted home-based palliative care and VAD, when necessary; he wanted to die at home. However, we couldn’t find enough NDIS-funded carers, and worse - VAD was illegal in the ACT. A week before his death Dan told me that he was ready to die.

Tortured by the loss of physical ability

For days he barely ate and didn’t want to take his medications. He mostly slept. One night, late and raining at home, he had been stripped down to his underwear after a sudden and unexpected incontinence episode. He staggered around the house violently shaking every door in an endeavour to escape the house. He agitatedly demanded that I end his life. He wanted it over.

When he realised that he couldn’t get out, he begged me to take one of the fence pickets and to impale him with it. It was very confronting and it hurt immensely to acknowledge he’d lost the incredible function he’d had. Desperately, I tried to explain that I was unable to help him. Instead, I secretly arranged for him to be transferred to palliative care. I felt like a traitor. He did not want this. He never wanted this.

He wanted to be out of his suffering. He had been brave and dignified; he deserved to be allowed to end it.

But no one would let him. Not even the person he trusted most. Instead, he was sedated by three paramedics at home and transferred to hospital by ambulance. There he tried to leave his bed but didn’t have the energy to get up. He wanted everyone to go away. He wanted to be back in his own home. Instead, as his tumour kept progressing, he became non-responsive and was reawakened with steroids.

I got him a cup of tea and asked him if he wanted a biscuit too. When I got back with the biscuit, he was asleep. It was to be his last cup of tea.

A final indignity

After a family meeting where we collectively reaffirmed his wishes, all cancer treatment was stopped. He was transferred to the oncology ward where he was placed on ‘comfort care’, while hospital cleaners and meals came and went. Needles were stuck in him. Bed baths by strangers. In a semi-conscious state, he slowly declined over five days.

Yet his documented and lucid view had been that he wanted someone to, “just push me off a cliff” or “take me to the back paddock and shoot me”, if he ever got to this stage. After advocating for him, comfort care staff in the cancer ward were incredible at providing him a safe, secure, private and quiet space to be at peace. For me it was a peaceful and “good death”. But for him it was everything he never wanted – the final indignity and theft of his self-control. The Australian Capital Territory government should prioritise legislation to permit voluntary assisted dying for people diagnosed with glioblastoma.

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