The one certainty in life is death – but even death lies shrouded in uncertainty in regards to where, when, why, and how. However, for Brittany Maynard, a 29 year-old woman with a terminal diagnosis, she has a choice: She has chosen when and how she’ll die.
On January 1, 2014, Brittany was diagnosed with glioblastoma, the deadliest form of brain cancer. The prognosis is grim and the treatment causes rapid weight gain and swelling of the face. The treatment is used to minimize the effects of seizures and swelling in the brain. In April, Brittany was given 6 months to live. After mulling over her end of life choices, Brittany and her family moved from California to Oregon, one of the 5 states in the U.S. that’s legalized death with dignity.
Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, Vermont, and Montana have all authorized death with dignity for terminal patients. Brittany has chosen to spend her last weeks with the Death With Dignity National Center, located in Portland. She’ll die with her family and friends by her side, including her husband of a little over a year.
When Brittany was diagnosed, the original plan was to fight the cancer as aggressively as possible. “I was 29 years old. I’d been married for just over a year. My husband and I were trying for a family,” she wrote for CNN. Her life was centered around her medical care, which included a partial craniotomy and a partial resection of her temporal lobe to try to stop the tumor from growing. However, in April, the tumor was back, more aggressive than ever and she was given 6 months to live.
Doctors recommended full brain radiation, but upon researching the effects Brittany discovered that they included her hair being singed off her scalp and first degree burns. “My quality of life as I knew it would be gone,” she wrote. “After months of research, my family and I reached a heartbreaking conclusion: There’s no treatment that would save my life, and the recommended treatments would have destroyed the time I had left.”
Brittany’s end of life options included palliative hospice care designed to make her final months peaceful and painless. However, she learned that she could develop morphine-resistant pain, personality changes and loss of cognitive, verbal and motor skills.
“Because the rest of my body is young and healthy, I’m likely to physically hang on for a long time even though cancer is eating my mind. I probably would have suffered in hospice care for weeks or even months. And my family would’ve had to watch that,” Brittany wrote.
Brittany began looking into death with dignity as an option for the end of her life. “It is an end-of-life option for mentally competent, terminally ill patients with a prognosis of 6 months or less to live,” she wrote. “It would enable me to use the medical practice of aid in dying: I could request and receive a prescription from a physician for medication that I could self-ingest to end my dying process if it becomes unbearable,” she wrote.
She quickly decided that this was the best option, moving with her husband and mother to Oregon. All of these changes weren’t easy, and Brittany recognizes that many people don’t have the resources, flexibility and support system to make this decision.
Unless her condition improves drastically, Brittany will pass on November 1, 2014, 2 days after celebrating her husband’s birthday.
She told People Magazine that she will dissolve her prescription of 100 capsules of secobarbital into a glass of water and drink it. In this way, she’ll die in a “peaceful and painless” way, surrounded by her husband, mother, stepfather and best friend in her bedroom at home.
When her suffering becomes unbearable, Brittany will be able to tell her family to join her as she passes in her sleep. She writes that she’s grateful for this choice and that she couldn’t imagine taking the choice from someone else.
Brittany’s choice isn’t based on a desire to die or a suicidal feeling. She has filled the prescription that was voluntarily written by her physician to be used whenever she wishes.
“I don’t want to die, but I am dying,” Brittany told the magazine. “My [cancer] is going to kill me, and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die,” she says. “So to be able to die with my family with me, to have control over my own mind, which I would stand to lose – to go with dignity is less terrifying.”
To learn more about death with dignity and to donate to the Brittany Maynard Fund, click here. And to read the full magazine article on Brittany’s life, pick up a copy of the Winter Issue on December 1st.