The Maynard Decision: A Cancer Survivor’s Torn Views

Unless you have been living under a rock, then you know the story of Brittany Maynard. The 29-year-old was diagnosed with stage 4 glioblastoma, a very aggressive form a brain cancer, and given just months to live beyond the initial diagnosis. Her and her family moved to Oregon shortly afterwards for the state’s “Death with Dignity” act, so that she could choose to end her life before the disease did. And that’s where my mixed feelings start. It starts with the phrase “Death with Dignity”.

A Few Quick Things

First, I want to just go ahead and call it what it is: suicide. The definition of suicide is “the action of killing one’s self purposefully”. And that’s exactly what she did. The word suicide is, of course, more often related to people who have fought with mental illness and decided that life was no longer worth it. But much is the same about Maynard’s case as well. She fought with an illness and decided life wouldn’t be worth having after a certain point, and she took her life. Assisted by a physician’s prescription, she committed suicide. Most media outlets are saying she “passed away in her sleep” implying that it was a normal death, or death of natural causes. But I just think it should be reported as it is. “Brittany Maynard Ends Her Life”.

Second, I want to talk about the meaning of the word “dignity” in this case. Two definitions of the word come to mind when I think about this case. There is “A sense of pride in one’s self” and “The state or quality of being worthy of honor and respect”. Two contrasting definitions if you really look at it. One is based completely on what it would be from the self perspective. How we feel about something we have done. The other is about how others view us for something we have done. In regards to the first definition, it was obvious she was confident in her decision to end her life on her own terms, instead of the ugly terms of the disease. In that right, she died with dignity. But look at the second definition. Would we use that to describe someone who commits suicide because of mental illness? Do we honor or respect them? No, we don’t.

Double Standards

The idea that the term “disease” is usually reserved for a physical ailment is misguided, in my opinion. There is such thing as mental disease. But we call it “illness” instead. So when someone takes their own life because of a “mental illness” we treat it with a sort of disdain that we wouldn’t if someone took their life because of a “disease”. As if one illness is deserving of more respect and understanding than another. Sure there are more treatments available for depression than for cancer, but that doesn’t make the value of one life greater than another.

This same double standard applies to dealing with suicide. With so many people trying to say that Brittany’s decision isn’t the same as someone committing suicide, when that couldn’t be anymore wrong. If you purposefully take your own life, it is suicide. No way around that. But to then call it dignified when shaming people who commit suicide because of a mental health disease, well, that just doesn’t make sense. A suicide is a suicide. Perhaps a skewed sense of compassion is to blame for the reason we validate one and not the other?

My Own Hypocrisy

When thinking about Brittany Maynard’s case and decision to end her own life, I can’t help but see the hypocrisy in my own ways of thinking. I’ve lost many people in my life to suicide following battles against different mental health diseases. I’ve lost many people due to cancer. Still more to their battles with addiction. I am a survivor of all three. And I am a hypocrite. When friends hit the point of suicide because of something like depression or addiction, I am quick to try to talk them out of it, to uplift them, and hope that they seek the help they need. But at the same time, if a friend of mine was in the same situation that Brittany Maynard  was, I would totally support and accept their decision.

Double standards.

Who am I, or anyone else for that matter, to condemn a person and turn around and praise another on the same action? What kind of person does that make me? Besides a hypocrite, it makes me judgmental. And judging is not my place. It’s not me to decide whether one person’s actions are acceptable, and another’s aren’t.  In any case, the one crucial fact remains: Another life is lost. Another person’s life has ended in a way we do not like, and it saddens us.

When I was first diagnosed, the docs made it sound like I might die. My disease had progressed for a long time before it was discovered. While my wife slept in the hospital room with me that night, I made the decision in my mind that if at any point I was told I wouldn’t make it, I would take my life before the disease did. During treatment, there were times when I contemplated taking my life because of depression that was associated with it. I hated the treatments and what they were doing to my body, and just wanted to hang it up.  It wouldn’t be the first time in my life those thoughts had crossed my mind. Yet, I am still here. I may not be 100% in mind and body, but for some reason, I am still here. I’m just still trying to figure out the reason.

The Right to Die

This is probably the most tricky thing to dissect in my mind. But at the same time, it’s really not. I do believe and support the right for terminally ill patients to take their own life, instead of suffering through the end stages of their disease. It’s terrible. For both the patient, and the friends and family. It’s a horrible thing to watch someone go through, and I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to be the patient. If they and their family feel that it’s best and wanted for it to be on their terms, then give them that. You’re not really giving them much by prolonging suffering and sorrow. In the end, death will occur. Nothing takes that inevitable fact away, and either way it will be sorrowful.

But this brings us back now to the thoughts of suicide in people with mental diseases. Do they too have this same right? If they honestly feel like it’s better to die than to continue to live, should we work so hard to try to save them then have them feel like horrible people for having thought about it? Is that fair? Having been through the depths of depression, and gripped in addiction as recently as the last 2 years, I can understand the thought process behind wanting to take one’s own life. Just like I would imagine it being for someone with a terminal cancer diagnosis, it’s not an easy thing to deal with and think about for anyone, regardless of what brought them to that point.

Final Summation

When it comes down to it, nobody can imagine what it was like in Brittany Maynard’s shoes. Nobody can imagine what it was like in Robin Williams; shoes. Unless we have been that person who wanted to take their life, we can’t pretend we understand. Everyone is different. Everyone thinks different, contemplates different, reacts different. As I said earlier, the end result is still the same. It’s still death. Families, friends, and communities still grieve. Someone still loses a brother, sister, father, mother, uncle, aunt, etc. And nothing can take that stinging pain away from them.

I guess this whole long post was just to show my thought process around these talking points. In the end, do I believe the right to die is the patient’s? Yes, I do. Do I believe this is a double standard depicted between patients who suffer from a physical ailment and patients who suffer from a mental ailment? Yes, I do. Do I believe there is an answer to both? No, I don’t. So what do I firmly believe at this point?

Once death has occurred, we don’t do ourselves, the families and friends, or society at large any good on lingering about the circumstances surrounding the death. It takes away from people’s right to properly grieve, and the person who has left us to be remembered for who they were, and not how they died. When I think of the phrase “dying with dignity” I think it can be marked by how you are remembered when you were alive, not how you went out.

When my time comes, whether it’s on my terms or God’s, if my death has any dignity, it will be because people remember who I was as a person when I was alive. If the discussion is more about how I pass, then maybe, perhaps, I didn’t serve a greater purpose before I did. And to me, that would be the greater sorrow.


The Beginning
About The Geeky Nimrod

Husband, Father, Thinker, Geek, Mobile Tech Enthusiast, Writer. I am the one who.... Knocks politely and possibly not even loud enough for you to hear. Just another dude on the internet.

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  1. Well put, John. Very well put.

    There is no easy answer. Would that there were.

This is what I think...