Annabel Brown

My Husband’s cancer experience made me think deeply about ‘assisted dying’


My husband Gerry was diagnosed with myeloma in 2015. Right from the start we knew that it was incurable, and that any treatment was life lengthening, not curative. The consultants told him that they could probably give him six more years.

Those six years were deeply challenging for both of us. The disease attacks the bones and seeing a CT scan of my husband’s core bones was like looking at lace. He broke vertebrae and ribs and gradually shrunk from 6’2″ to about 5’5″. For us both the deterioration in his physique was very distressing. We had to constantly adapt and try and maintain his independence. Can you imagine gradually losing the ability to do the most ordinary tasks, like reaching up to a cupboard to pick up a glass?

One of my husband’s passions in life was classic cars, especially MGs. It was both his business and his hobby, and he was well known in MG circles. To gradually lose the ability to work on cars and then not be able to drive at all was deeply painful to him and to me. The chemo that he was given was very debilitating. He suffered huge side effects, and although it gave him a longer life, the quality of his life gradually and markedly deteriorated. Anyone who has been in the same situation will know the heartbreak that accompanies this.

Last autumn, Gerry realised that the maintenance chemo he was on was too much for his frail body to cope with. At this stage, he stopped all treatment apart from painkillers. The end was near, but he did not give up. Instead, he entered a period of refocussing. My family was blessed by the deepening of relationships and a new softness in him. Knowing the end was close, he and I spent time making sure that there was nothing unresolved between us, and I helped write to his closest friends to tell them how much they had meant to him. Gerry died peacefully and naturally at home, with me beside him.

When assisted suicide last came before parliament, in 2015 Gerry and I were very active in fighting against the possibility of it becoming law. There were times during Gerry’s illness when I thought back to our passionate campaigning and realised how black and white my thinking was. Soon after our journey through the illness began, I started to understand how some people may long for death. Treatment for cancer is debilitating and difficult to bear, and sometimes the treatment can seem worse than allowing the disease to progress sooner to its natural conclusion. I believe there should be far more open discussions about whether to prolong life with invasive chemo – about the balance between length of life and quality of life.

A diagnosis of motor neurone disease or any other progressive and incurable disease is also difficult to bear. But I believe that assisted suicide is not the answer. It presents real danger to vulnerable people who are not able to access the support network that Gerry had, surrounded as he was by loving family, friends, and with access to an incredibly supportive GP and palliative care consultant.

A few hours before Gerry died, he got stuck in his chair and then on the toilet, where he insisted on going despite me urging him not to. It was after midnight. I phoned the rapid response team only to be told that they don’t do manual handling, and the only solution would be to phone for an ambulance so the paramedics could lift him. Knowing how long ambulances can take to respond, I somehow lifted him off myself, and with my daughter’s assistance, managed to help him shuffle back to bed. Although everyone who helped us was wonderful, there were times when it hit us forcibly about how stretched our resources are as a nation. But that is not a justification for assisted dying.

Many people with a terminal illness are also lonely and depressed. Some, seeing the immense pressure put on a spouse or children, feel as if they are a burden. How can it right to offer such people help to commit suicide? The idea of encouraging lonely, depressed, or guilt-ridden people – pain-stricken as they may be – to follow through and end their lives should be unthinkable.

Finally, I fail to see how a change in the law to allow a very tiny number of people who feel that their situation is beyond help can be narrowly defined enough to prevent abuse. Even with the opinion of doctors and judges, there is no guarantee that a person seeking to end their life is not responding to pressure from family members. There is no guarantee that a doctor’s prognosis is correct, or accurate. There is also no guarantee that people might feel differently about assisted dying if they are afforded a particular kind of treatment or support. The problem with a failure in assisted suicide safeguards is that the failing is irreversible. Death is the end.

I accept that the situation we have at present is far from perfect. But there are other ways to help suffering patients that do not carry the huge dangers of assisted suicide – both for patients and society more widely. I urge politicians not to take us down this path.