When Governor Jerry Brown signed “Death With Dignity” into law in 2015, I silently applauded his decision and shed a quiet tear of gratitude.
Finally, I thought to myself, the right to determine my right to die without interference from churches, the government or any anti-suicide busy-bodies.
As a cancer patient, I finally had the right to decide how I was going to die if and when this cancer, adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC), becomes insufferable and there was no hope left. ACC is a rare, fatal and incurable cancer with only 1,200 patients per year, according to my UCSF doctors that morning of Oct. 10, 2007.
It was the beginning of a cancer journey that took me to hell and hasn’t stopped. It has left me dealing with anger at God for allowing this to happen for no good reason. It has also left me dealing with very deep depression, asking, why can’t I just end my suffering? Why continue down this road, walking across this bridge of misery and nightmares? It has only continued over the years.
For instance, in 2011-12, when Kaiser oncologists informed me that the cancer, which started behind the right eye in April 2007, had now spread to the lungs and brain.
“There’s nothing that we can do… you’re at stage four. You don’t have much time left.”
Then a few weeks later came more heartbreaking news. The cancer had metastasized to the right inner ear and the cancer had wrapped itself around a vein and was growing into the brain. Surgery was out. The concern was that during surgery the surgeon could nick the blood vessel and I would bleed to death. So, as with the original brain tumors’ diagnosis, intense or prolonged radiation was the only option.
So I was sent off to John Muir Hospital in Walnut Creek. The John Muir oncologist/oncologist did warn me that what Kaiser ordered was “very dangerous.” 40 days of radiation just “on the original brain tumors,” and now another six days of radiation to my right ear.
Oh, well. At least I’ll stay warm, I told myself.
Hope sprang eternal for the lung cancer that cyberknife treatment would clear my lungs and do away with the 20 tumors some as large as 6 centimeters. But it was not to be. There were too many tumors, all scattered about.
So, that was it, the brain tumors would need radiation. But the lung tumors… Well, we’ve become best friends through the years. We’d stay close, or as I like to say nowadays, “I’ve grown attached to them.” Of course the lung cancer invited their close cousin emphysema in 2017, which is now at stage 3.
In hindsight, which is always 20/20, I’m not sure I made the right decision on the radiation or brain tumors, in the years that followed my oncologists and numerous neurologists have told me that I have suffered severe and irreparable brain damage.
Yes, I’m still alive, but that’s not much of a smiley thing anymore. There’s not a day when I don’t wake up in a state of confusion, my head spinning as the rest of the world teeters to the left or right. The biggest problem, according to close friends, family and my own experiences is that, I’m not as “sharp as I used to be.”
For a journalist of 36 years, who has covered local politics from Roseville to Turlock and written for newspapers up and down the Central Valley (Turlock Journal, Manteca Bulletin, Roseville Press Tribune, Lodi News-Sentinel, Tracy Press, Patterson Irrigator) and Bay Area (SJ Mercury News, Los Gatos Weekly, Saratoga News, SF Examiner, Oakland Tribune, Tri-Valley Herald), this becomes a problem. To get a real sense of my state of confusion after the radiation, you should see me drive. You’ll know it’s me if you see someone with an eye patch covering the right eye.
I’m going blind because of the surgery to remove the original cancer.
After the brain and lung diagnosis, I decided it would be good to place my affairs in order, so I joined a local assisted suicide group. Ground rules were simple: Assisted suicide is an option only when my doctors agree that I’ve run out of time, less than six months. I agreed, and was connected to two Bay Area doctors to work with: one in Berkeley, the other in Palo Alto.
After informing them of my cancer and situation, one didn’t offer me much hope. “Oh, ACC is a fatal cancer. I’m sorry.” I told him that’s what my UCSF oncologist said upon diagnosis in 2007.
Well, there went my hopes of living forever. Actually, I don’t have hopes of a cure or a long life; most of my friends (ten of them) on Facebook diagnosed with the same cancer have died because of the cancer. And each passing hurts so much.
I’m usually not a person to reflect on negative, so when the cancer snuggled up to the brain and lungs, I organized a fundraiser to help young cancer patients based on a friend’s son. He was diagnosed with cancer while in his freshman year in high school. I called it StompOutKidsCancer, an organization dedicated to funding research for a cure for pediatric cancer. Working with San Joaquin County firefighters, I started a grape stomp to get donations and donate all of the proceeds to childhood cancer research at UC Davis. We have done that four years in a row, now I’m hoping to start the same type of fundraiser here in Livermore with local teachers.
My biggest problem is finding sponsors. However, we have been able to raise thousands of dollars, thanks to the generosity of the firefighters and other supporters, and along the way we did more than raise money. We sent a 4-year-old brain cancer patient, Andrew, to Roarin’ Camp railroad in Santa Cruz to ride Thomas the Tank Engine, his favorite character. When my illustrator for my first children’s book told me her 11-year-old granddaughter, who wanted to be a dancer, had leukemia and couldn’t walk, we sent her family tickets to the Denver ballet to watch “The Nutcracker.” Then there was Matthew, a 9-year-old Lockeford boy, fighting an incurable and fatal cancer. I organized a birthday party for him with San Joaquin County firefighters, and hundreds of friends he didn’t know he had. At the party, I talked to Matthew about what he wanted to do that he had never gotten the chance to. Matthew said five simple words to me: “Watch a live baseball game.” I called Detra Paige, Director of Alumni and Family Relations for the Oakland A’s. We had worked together since 2011 to bring 150 pediatric cancer patients and their families to three games every year. Ms. Paige set aside five tickets for Matthew and his family. I never knew how much Matthew enjoyed the game. Matthew died in November at the age of 10. I cry at his loss.
I am so sorry, Matthew.
I would have gladly taken his place. No child should fight or die of cancer. It’s so wrong.
Through StompOutKidsCancer, we raised thousands of dollars to help fund research for a cure. We also helped families struggling financially with cancer care and treatments. 98 percent of families dealing with pediatric cancer declare bankruptcy. How is that fair?
I also wrote a poem to reflect how I felt being a cancer patient still fighting my cancer. It’s been published in several national cancer magazines and elsewhere:
I am a cancer patient, not a victim;
As such, I am the same person I was before the cancer.
My spirit, sense of joy, unbridled passion for life,
sense of humor, dreams and goals
and aspirations to enjoy and do what I want
have not changed.
My love for friends and family did not fade or die away
and my joy in being with them still beats strong inside.
I still dance by the song of the rains, still whisper to the
I still sing when the sun breaks the morning darkness
And laugh when my heart is filled with happiness.
I have not relinquished my dreams to any disease
And never will.
I have not given up on enjoying life to its fullest
And do not intend to do so.
I am still in love with life and always will be,
no matter what.
And each morning, I am thankful and feel blessed
That I can still greet the day
And see the sun rise above me;
Yes, I am a cancer patient like many others.
And no matter what we go through
We are not victims and never will be
I wrote this in the beginning of my cancer journey, and although I don’t want to die, the journey and all its stumbles has me seeking relief in death. And this is even before I’m pre-qualified for assisted suicide.
I’ve written a children’s book, “Hole In His Socks,” which is now in its second printing with Dorrance Publishing. If all works out, the book will be placed in the gift shop at Lucille Packard Hospital at Stanford. All the money derived from the book will go to Lucille Packard Hospital, to help the young pediatric cancer patients and their families. It’s the least I can do to help children.
Upon my death, I’ve made arrangements to donate my body to science to help find a cure to this hellacious, wicked, evil cancer. There may not be a cure in my lifetime, but if I can spare someone the agony of what I’ve suffered, all the better.
Seriously, every day is a struggle to keep and maintain my sanity or just function without going off the deep end. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge without a parachute, or find a quiet meadow to bring an end to all my sufferings. I’ve asked God for help so many times, cried myself to sleep and asked, “Why this?”
Of course I got more bad news this year. The cancer had spread to the spinal cord: L-2, L-4.
So why am I enrolled in college, after all this? As I told my doctor, “I’m not dead yet, and I still want to learn.” My ValleyCare doctor wouldn’t have any of that and recommended I drop out of school because of the stress it’s placing on me.
I don’t very often listen to any of my doctors, not even my oncologists.
Besides, I figure with all this experience in journalism I can help aspiring journalists become better journalists before they explore their chosen field. No, I don’t have a degree, but, as my San Jose State journalism adviser, Bill Tillinghaus, told me in my sophomore year, “You’re already a working journalist. All a degree proves is that you can stay in college for four years.” I started writing for Mercury News that year.
Now, add all the classroom and learning stress with all the doctors’ visits and the multitude of scans every six months: CT (iodine), PET (radioactive drug tracer), MRI (gadolinium-based) scans and the mere reality that the brain cancer can return or the 20 lung tumors can get bigger and spread, and you’ll get a sense of why assisted suicide is the obvious route for me. No one wants to live this way, and no one should. And I won’t go into the fibromyalgia and diabetes-based neuropathy diagnosis. Suffice it to say, I’ve had enough.
I’ve asked God, “Why me?” I’ve begged for relief. But some religious folks tell me, “God has other plans for you,” or to “be patient and long-suffering.” That’s it. Stupidity and no answers. So, yes, suicide remains an option, and justifiably so. I emailed Gov. Brown, through his press representative when he was deciding the Death With Dignity bill, “No one wants to die, but no one wants to suffer, either.”
So, for all those right-wing Christians who want to shove their obnoxious beliefs on me: walk a day in my shoes, and perhaps you’ll understand my support for assisted suicide. It remains a viable option for me, with or without a doctor’s advice.