Confronting mortality and dying well

Ms O’Leary tells the story of Naomi and Scott Blackwell.

Ms Blackwell was diagnosed with cancer five years ago. Her husband Scott is a palliative care specialist who “was suddenly in the role of family carer, rather than doctor.”

They chose doctors to treat Naomi who were on the same page as them, valuing outcomes by quality of life, not just time.

“This meant we lived 10 years in the next five, because we were able to live within the reality that we were given — it was all about life,” Dr Blackwell says.

“Towards the end of 2014, she turned 60 and I turned 70 so we had a big 60-70 party, and we had it at a restaurant down on the river, because we knew what was happening with her, that this would be her last big party.

“She was the star and looked stunning, and we celebrated our life, and it was just a wonderful time.”

Four years after Naomi was diagnosed, the disease was behaving true to form and doctors started running out of options to keep it under control.

But with the careful use of medication and radiotherapy, the couple were able to travel overseas to see family and more of the world.

It was only earlier this year, when scans revealed the disease had spread to Naomi’s abdomen causing a bowel obstruction, that they made the decision to stop treatment.

Surgery to unblock her bowel would have added only an extra two or three weeks to her time, but it did not offer any extra life.

With the help of their surgeon, they decided against operating, and with Silver Chain support, Naomi went home and died a few days later in February.

Surrounded by family, a simple sigh marked the end of her life at the age of 61.

WA’s chief medical officer Gary Geelhoed says that “doctors can be too busy trying to treat or cure, when sometimes the most humane approach is to step back and have a different conversation with families.”

“Sometimes taking a broader view rather than looking at it as a medical problem means you can get a better outcome for patients and families,” Professor Geelhoed says.

He says a study has shown cancer patients sent to palliative care actually live longer than those given active treatment.

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