My husband died of multiple myeloma on Dec. 1, 2022. He had been diagnosed with this incurable form of blood cancer in the summer of 2019. For more than three and a half years, he endured one treatment after another, all of them unsuccessful in stopping the ravages of the disease.
People often write about their loved one “losing the battle with cancer.” It’s no battle. A battle presupposes two fairly equal sides duking it out with similar weapons. Cancer had all the advantages; my husband had only his courage.
For all those years, I was at his side: at the 17 hospitalizations; more than a hundred days in Rochester at the Mayo Clinic; by his bed in an ICU for eight days after his nearly-fatal reaction to a chemo drug; at innumerable clinic visits; at home, where we had a hospital bed in the den and I slept on the couch for four months and at hospice for the last days of his life.
I lived in a constant state of dread, never knowing when or if I’d have to call 911 again or drive back to Mayo in the middle of the night. I never slept soundly; I’d wake up during the night to be sure he was still breathing and to check his vital signs. On good days, when he went for a walk, I’d go with him, my phone at the ready in case I had to call for help.
His death, though inevitable, was devastating. Although he received kind and loving hospice care, he was stripped of his human dignity by the end. He had been an athlete, and his once-strong body had crumbled from this cancer that ate away his bones. He had been a professor for 40 years, and his sharp, analytical mind became fogged by the years of nearly toxic medications.
People tell me I’ll have consolation from the memories of our great life together: travel to nearly 50 countries, remarkable adventures, shared interests in the arts, history, politics and more.
No. My memories are of the devastation of his body and mind. I am in anguish over these memories, which crowd out nearly all else.
The psychological stress that I had carried with me for those years began to affect me physically as well. I developed an irregular heartbeat, undoubtedly caused, my doctor said, by stress.
My husband was doubly devastated by the cancer: by the way it was attacking him, and by the way he saw it attacking me … both of us vulnerable in body and soul, most horrifically during the last weeks of his life.
I am the founder and executive director of World Without Genocide, a human rights organization. We support the integrity, dignity, and the right of people to have bodily autonomy. My husband lost that right.
We support the End of Life Option Act in Minnesota (SF 1813/HF 1930). If passed, this would allow a terminally ill, mentally capable adult with a prognosis of six months or less to live, to request, obtain, and to take medication — should they choose — to die peacefully in their sleep if their suffering becomes unbearable. This is what my husband wanted.
He didn’t have that choice. Please advocate for that choice. Dignity is our human right.
Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, an adjunct professor of law.