Open Ended Death Sentence

A few people have asked me about my reaction to Brittany Maynard’s death. How do you feel about it? Does it upset you? Do you think it was ‘right’? Would you do the same thing? Do you think she gave up and should have gone through surgery and treatment? And so on. Brittany isn’t the first one to die of this disease, there are many others who fight the battle and lose. We lose people to GBMs every day. We also see survivors who inspire hope and promise.

Very few of us know what was really happening with Brittany. We can all make assumptions and quickly move into criticism, judgement or support for her choice to die with dignity. Some will quickly call her decision, her ‘suicide’, immoral and she shall be damned for eternity. Maybe some people don’t believe Brittany should have ended her life, some say she should have fought harder, and others called her brave for making that hard decision and bringing the ‘die with dignity’ discussion to the forefront.

No one but Brittany, her family and her doctors know her circumstances, the details behind her tumor, and her final decision. She was diagnosed in January and ultimately chose not to seek aggressive treatment. She chose to die her way. She chose to use her situation to bring attention to ‘Die with Dignity’ laws in the country.

The one thing that I AM bothered by is the fact that her story brought a lot of attention to the ‘Right to Die’ laws, but very little discussion about brain cancer. It was a lost opportunity to open a dialogue about the need for awareness and funding to find treatments and even a cure, making sure that no one suffers through this disease of has to choose how they die. But I’m stating that disappointment from the perspective of someone fighting the same deadly tumor, which gives me a little bit of a bias.

NBC was one of the only news outlets that seemed to focus on the issue of brain cancer.  The article is here.

In contrast, Lauren Hill – another terminal brain cancer patient – has chosen to spend her final days raising funds and awareness for Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG). This pediatric brain cancer is as deadly as Glioblastoma Multiforme. Her community has rallied around her with support and love.

Both Brittany and Lauren had/have terminal illnesses. They both chose how to raise awareness for what was most important to them. Neither decision was right or wrong, it was their decision and we should respect that even if it’s not what we would choose to do ourselves.

Living with a terminal illness with an open-ended completion date can be a little stressful at times. Ok, very stressful. Knowing you’re going to die from a terminal illness, just not when, can lead you to become paralyzed with fear OR it can lead you to enjoy the beauty that each day offers. More realistically, however, it’s a combination of both – sometimes in the same day. It will cause you to plan for the inevitable, privately or publicly.

Many of us might not make the same decisions as Brittany OR Lauren. Does that make one of us ‘stronger’, ‘braver’ or ‘weaker’ than the other? No. It just means that we’re all individuals fighting a disease that we know will eventually take our lives…sooner or later…and how we each deal with that is going to be a very individual experience from diagnosis to treatment to death. Brittany and Lauren made their choices and so will we.

 

 

But You Don’t LOOK Sick?!

When you don’t have visible scars, noticeable physical impairment, or speech impediments (and can still use $20 words like impediment), it’s hard for people to understand that you’re fighting an illness or trying to manage a health condition. Sometimes those of us fighting that illness can even forget. We call those ‘good days’.

Once our hair grows back and looks relatively normal, once the effects of our last seizure wear off and we can stop wearing sunglasses under fluorescent lights, once we acclimate to our new drugs or new doses (and our stammers and memory lapses ease up) we seem like everyone else walking around in the world.

But, as much as we wish we were, we aren’t just like everyone else. We have psychological scars and anxiety every day about having another seizure, tumors growing or coming back, having a brain bleed, or running out of treatment options. This is a kind of anxiety that ‘everyone else’ doesn’t experience. We have invisible effects of our tumors or our treatments – surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, anti-seizure medications. We can’t concentrate for longer than 5 minutes.  We struggle to read or write even simple things. Our impaired balance prevents us from riding a bike. We get exhausted when we try to do too much or are surrounded by too much stimulation – those definitions of ‘too much’ dramatically lower than pre-tumor definitions. We can no longer multi-task. We forget names we used to know, shopping lists of 3 items, to move laundry from the washer to the dryer, what we ate for breakfast (did I remember to eat breakfast?) We are less independent that we used to be. We can’t drive. We can’t swim alone. Our friends and family are always on alert for emergency situations or they hover because of their own, understandable worry. Everything can change in a heartbeat.

Most people will make assumptions about us, if they know we have brain tumors, brain cancer, or seizure disorders. They are surprised when we tell them our chemotherapy won’t make our hair fall out and we take it via pills rather than infusions. They assume that we’re going to die, and quickly. They assume brain tumors are a death sentence because that’s how they’re portrayed in the media. They are shocked to find out that there are 120 different types of tumors and many of them are benign. They are shocked that brain tumors are indiscriminate – they can strike children, teens, adults – male and female. That there is no known cause for ANY of those tumors. That our treatment options have changed very little in the last 20 years – largely because brain tumor research is dramatically underfunded.

Even if there are no outward signs – we are fighting a battle every day. We are hoping for better treatment options and a cure. We are hoping that more people will become aware of brain tumors and help us fight. That during Brain Tumor Awareness month (May, by the way), we’ll see sports teams, products, Celebrity PSAs, fundraising campaigns showing their support with the color grey – helping to spread information and increase awareness. For us, grey (though perhaps not as sexy or eye-catching) matters just as much as pink.

Help us make a change. A donation to The National Brain Tumor Society (or your country’s brain tumor association) would be a good start.