by Ian Haines, The Age, 20 November 2016
Australian oncologist Ian Haines describes how “Like Andrew Denton and others who have observed unbearable suffering in loved ones and the terrible failures of modern medicine in the past, I had once believed that euthanasia was the only humane solution. I no longer believe that.”
In 1969, when I was 15 years old, my adored 37-year-old single Auntie Nancy was diagnosed with very advanced, untreatable ovarian cancer. It was a dreadful time in our close extended family’s life. She began to deteriorate quickly and to develop severe pain from the tumour masses in her abdomen. She asked to stay at home and to be allowed to die in peace surrounded by her loving family.
There were no visiting palliative care nursing teams then. There was no medical expertise in pain control. Doctors avoided using narcotics until the final hours for fear of addiction and that they would stop working if started too early.
The advances in the skills, availability and knowledge in palliative care since those days have been phenomenal. The horror stories of doctors telling nurses to close the doors of the patients who were screaming out in pain were fast disappearing.
I have received many euthanasia requests from patients and families over my 34 years in full-time oncology practice, some very passionate, but I have invariably found that they quickly disappear as reassurance and adequate medication doses provide the comfort that is desired and the newly exposed opportunities for patients and families to share deep and poignant moments of bonding and reflection, or nurse a new-born grandchild, or attend a wedding or a graduation.
As an oncologist with 35 years’ full-time experience, I have seen palliative care reach the point where the terminally ill can die with equal or more dignity than euthanasia will provide. It is now very effective and increasingly available for two of the three possible ways of dying, outside of sudden unexpected death, which are advanced cancer and chronic relapsing and remitting organ-specific disease such as heart or lung failure.
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