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Dying Well Barrie's Blog | Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

Dying Well

The ongoing debate about assisted dying in the UK and in many other countries is much more relevant to me now that I have been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Don’t misunderstand me, I currently have no intention of going anywhere for a while and, of course, I am determined to prove the doctors wrong. Despite the bravado that cancer suffers often display, in those dark hours of the night, like so many in my position, I often wonder how I will deal with those last few days and hours?

It’s not death that troubles me, but the pain, loss of dignity, loss of independence, and the burden that it places upon others, and particularly those that are closest that troubles me most. In response to my many questions about the issue, my consultant assures me that there will be drugs available to ease any pain (I note the words “ease” and not to eliminate). Nursing support, or indeed a hospice place, would be available if necessary. Despite his well-meaning and kindly, confident assurance, I am not so sure, since I know that our local hospice is only accepting terminally ill patients in the final day or two of impending death. This restriction is due to capacity, funding and staffing issues, which I find alarming since one’s date of death is difficult to determine accurately. Such is the demand for such places that a peaceful end to one’s life in the hospice is not assured given the lottery of admission and appropriate care. Personally, I would like to die at home, surrounded by people that I love in a place that I feel comfortable, but I know that this may not be possible or sensible when the time comes.

So, what’s the answer? The answer, to me, is very clear. Would we let a dog or cat, or indeed any animal, suffer from an incurable illness when we could see that they are in pain or distress? For most people, the answer would be ‘No, of course not’. Would we not try to ease their pain and to make their end as comfortable as possible in a place where they feel loved, and secure? (Although I accept that there is a very different morality when it comes to the appalling treatment of farm animals and their slaughter.) Can we not offer the same compassion to humans too?

I sometimes wonder if I would be happy to spend around £10,000, if I could afford it, for a one-way flight to the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland where I could legally decide to end it all, with a couple of tablets, and at a time and manner of my choosing. Of course, this option is a non-starter for most people, but more enlightened governments in the Netherlands, Belgium and elsewhere have made it much easier for assisted dying to take place in their countries and this is being seriously considered in many others. The issue is once again being debated in the UK Parliament, and I truly hope that it will not be too long before the UK recognises that it is time for compassion to be at the heart of a new law to allow assisted dying.

There are often well stated and passionate arguments relating to the prevention of abuse by relatives anxious to get their hands on the sick person’s estate, but protections can and are put in place to prevent such abuse in other countries, so why not in the UK? Although Quakers have not at this stage of the debate definitively stated their agreed views, there are numerous and often reasonable objections from many religious bodies that are carefully considered in this debate. What I do object to is the view that assisted dying is “Against God’s Will”, and as such is regarded as a sin. As a Quaker, I find it hard to balance a loving God, the Spirit, or Whatever wishing to prolong pain and misery; a view that I personally find hard to take seriously. It is for this reason that I would like to see well meaning, but often dogmatic clerics removed from this parliamentary debate, and replaced with informed views from the dying, the medical profession, as well as lawmakers who have dealt with a similar challenge in other countries.

A young friend of mine has mouth cancer; he has lost his tongue and can no longer eat or speak and he grows weaker by the day. Over the years that I have known him we have shared a love of growing orchids and I send messages to him regularly, together with a photo of one of his favourite orchids when I find a new one to share. Although he is seriously ill, I know that he does not want his life to be ended whilst his pain his under control, yet the option should be there if and when he can take no more.

If an Assisted Dying Bill is eventually passed by the UK Parliament, I doubt that patients would be queuing at the doors to ask for their lives to be ended. The will to live is very strong in most of us, despite suffering from some truly dreadful health conditions. I meet and speak to many patients in the cancer ward, as well as online, and I know of very few who would request assisted dying at their stage of illness. Recent proposals suggest that it is only in the last six months of a terminal condition that the right to an assisted death should be agreed. Many suggest that such restrictions are unnecessary given the wide range of serious health conditions and circumstances, but it would be a start.

Published in The Friend on 9 November 2023 under the title of 'Late Blooming'

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

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