I am ready to talk about my death. Is anyone else?

Apparently it’s natural to think about dying, but not to plan your own death

10 May 2014

9:00 AM

10 May 2014

9:00 AM

It is October 2012 and my ovarian cancer is back. As we wait to see the consultant I say to my best friend, ‘We are going to Mexico this weekend to get that stuff so I can kill myself. We’ll probably get killed by drug barons.’ My consultant says I have three years. I agree to more chemo and ask: ‘Can I go to Mexico?’ She looks baffled.

It is February 2013 and the consultant is discussing hospices. She is eight months pregnant. I don’t tell her about the Mexican barbiturate in the fridge. I do tell the nice hospice counsellor, though. She goes white.

‘The drug dealers seem to have a good reputation.’

She isn’t reassured.

‘It works on large animals and I’m no bigger than a small donkey or a big dog.’

She tells me that I need to have a psychiatric assessment. Apparently it’s natural to think about dying but not to plan your own death. When I see my GP I tell her that I’m thinking about killing myself and want this recorded to protect my family and friends.

‘Oh, and I also need to be referred to a psychiatrist who’ll say I’m sane, or I won’t get therapy.’

‘What do you think of that?’ she asks.


The GP calls a psychiatrist and she says it’s ridiculous. Now that I’m officially not mad the counsellor will see me again, but only with her supervisor, who tells me that in 15 years at the hospice she has never encountered someone with a plan before.

How can you talk about a good life without talking about a good death? I get the feeling that the hospice isn’t the best place to talk about dying.

It is June 2013 and my friend suggests we go to a Death Café. About 40 people are there. The facilitator is asking people to imagine their deaths. People mention favourite cotton sheets and listening to Bach. I try to imagine the smell of baking but can’t stop wondering whether faecal matter will come through my mouth. So I tell them I have a terminal illness and an illegal drug in the fridge. ‘How many of the group are dying, like me?’ I ask. No one raises a hand.

Late June 2013. These are my people! A hundred of us gathered to learn about peaceful methods of dying at the Exit International Workshop. As we leave, however, there are protestors. My friend calls them cowards for hiding behind skeleton masks. One takes hers off but looks so terrified I tell her to put it back on. Another says she’s a lawyer. I ask her: ‘What right do you have to tell me how I should die from ovarian cancer?’ She answers that her sister died from ovarian cancer and fought for her very last breath. Her face is full of grief and I suddenly feel desperately sorry for her and want to hug her instead of punching her.

November 2013. Whenever I am in a clinic my blood pressure shoots up. I’m on a three-weekly intravenous drug called Avastin, which is the only thing keeping me alive, but my veins are getting thinner. Today my blood pressure’s higher than ever. Eventually I’m cannulated. A nurse tells me to relax, she’ll take my blood pressure later. I know I’m too anxious. I won’t get my drug. We wait for the doctor on call to give his permission. My BP goes through the roof.

I beg a nurse to turn on the machine. I could kiss him when he says ‘OK’, but later I look at the bag and the drug isn’t being fed into my arm. All the nurses have disappeared. I wander through the wards, wheeling my Avastin on its pole. I’m crying, pressing buttons on the machine, hoping I can turn it on myself.

Eventually a nurse tells me the doctor on call instructed them not to give me the drug. I speak to him on the phone and demand my drug. He hangs up. Just as I think I’m about to have a stroke, the nurse tells me that my consultant has a clinic that day. I can’t stop babbling when I see her. ‘Have a mince pie,’ she says, ‘I’m going to give you the Avastin.’

In January this year, the cancer spread to my glands and lungs. My consultant told me there was no further point in giving me the Avastin or in my undergoing any more chemotherapy. We talked about palliative care and pain relief. I asked her what her thoughts were on assisted dying. She said that no one had asked her this question before and she needed to think about it.

Many years ago I saw a Woody Allen film where he is considering suicide but he can’t do it without killing his parents first, as his death would be so devastating for them. I think killing my parents first is an excellent idea. I could check that the barbiturate works on them before I take it. My mother, who is 88, fell over at Christmas and broke her pelvis and is only just getting over it, and my father, 91, shuffles and lurches in a way that has us all running for cover. It can only get worse.

The three of us are sitting at home. At 51, I am aware that this is the first time I feel like an adult in the company of my parents, and being an adult means keeping it together in front of my mum and dad while knowing all our hearts are breaking.

‘I’m very sick. I don’t know how long I’ve got but I promise you that I will not suffer. I have the means so that I won’t let that happen. I promise you.’

They nod that they know and that they really don’t want me to suffer. My mum is looking at me very intensely and says that I am an angel — she has often thought so — and that there is some smoked salmon in the fridge. Would I like to take some home with me?

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  • Richard Baron

    I salute the author, for her courage and her realism. Copies of this article should be sent to every MP and peer, just before the next time they vote on assisted dying.

  • rtj1211

    I think that the only people who are comfortable talking about it are those who either have to face up to its arrival or those who faced it earlier in life for one reason or another.

    You’ll usually also find that those whose innocence died young are also comfortable talking about it. In some ways, they are already the living dead, so talking about it is merely explaining their daily reality.

    For those who still have dragons to slay, battles to fight, boundaries to challenge, perhaps talking about death is impossible. What they are doing is fighting the natural order of life first, before accepting their place in the natural order of things later.

    Some may channel the grief of a premature departure through slaying dragons etc. They couldn’t face up to losing something sooner than they could cope with, so blocked it out through obsessions, single-minded determination etc etc.

    Each of us has a different coping mechanism. Mine is like yours, but most of my family’s is the polar opposite……..

    • Terry Field

      Yes, you are right. I think this subject should be more fully explored in the coming episodes of Peppa Pig.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Poets talk about death all the time. When they are not talking about love, that is. But perhaps that s not counted as talking.

  • aeiou

    What a load of self-pitying bollocks. Get a grip, get a priest, get your bloody chemo.

    • Keith D

      Fitting you declined to reveal your identity to accompany your heartless comment.

      Thoughts with you Jo.

    • cartimandua

      And what a pathetic excuse for a human being you are. I hope you die a lingering and horribly painful death.

      • Fergus Pickering

        I hope you don’t wish that on anybody who has not murdered one of your family. It is a bit over the top for someone who has said something unpleasant.

        • cartimandua

          My Mother died of the complications of Ovarian cancer before Christmas. I absolutely do wish the person who uttered that foul remark a “reality check” for themselves.
          It may come to them of course. Blocked bowels are very common in the elderly and not gendered at all.
          What goes around comes around.

          • Fergus Pickering

            I am sorry abut your mother. It was an unkind and stupid remark doubtless stemming from some secret fear.I thought I might die prior to a heart operation two years ago, and indeed I might have. Such a thing does indeed change one’s perspective somewhat. What do matters of, say, politics, really matter? They are of interest but they don’t matter. I wonder what led Balfour to make that remark..

          • cartimandua

            Psychopathy or ignorance or as you said some deep anxiety. The Internet permits those things and gives them fuel. Its worth calling them out though and not letting it stand even though they probably “just want attention”.
            A long time ago I was working on a children’s Neuro ward at Johns Hopkins. One child said to another “you are going to die when you have your surgery”.
            The child who said it had some condition which required frequent life threatening surgeries and had “lost a bit” due to the condition.
            We spoke about how such times made everyone worried.
            Back in the UK at GOSH a child said to me brightly once in a group “Im going to die”. My colleague got there first and said
            “well then a short life and a merry one what shall we choose to do now”?
            The other thing about all this is to make sure that time doesn’t become all about death but about the next good thing life could offer.
            With my Mother her age and heart meant her lease was going to be short. We always had the next thing in the diary to plan for and look forward to.
            So that is also very important.. having the next good thing to look forward to.
            My Mother made it to come with us for a family holiday
            a few months before she died . It was in the UK but not bad for someone in their mid 80s with a bad heart.
            My husband tripped in the room over his shoes which
            meant he and my Mother came all the way back from Devon in a taxi while the kids and I took the train back.

    • rob232

      Try and show a little more compassion.

    • Cathie

      You miserable coward, you don’t have a hundredth of the courage Jo has. She has helped and inspired many, many people with her courage and strength in the face of life threatening adversity.

    • Terry Field

      How do you live with your own repulsive nature?

    • Michael Brunner


    • test1

      I am deeply sorry for this comment, and can only offer in my defense that it was posted with at least a few good intentions by a stupid man thinking he was clever.

      I beg anyone reading this to look beyond my mistakes, and see that they do not condemn the route of looking to brighter and hopeful things than suicide.

      Your forgiveness, if forthcoming, is truly appreciated.

      I will also note that thankfully, despite my failures, she did not kill herself in the end.

  • cartimandua

    Jo its the potential symptoms you need answers about. My Mother survived surgery for Ovarian and was well for years. She then got a blocked bowel and they could not relieve her symptoms. She didn’t tell me but I think they said “palliative sedation” or surgery. She had a weak heart. There was only a vanishingly small chance of her surviving that surgery and she didn’t. That has left me with PTSD flashbacks
    of my Mother being frightened when she went to surgery but I was grateful they didn’t leave her with tubes everywhere and still retching.
    You need a realistic answer about symptom control and then you can decide what you want to do.

  • Cathie

    It’s wonderful to read your story of courage and strength, told with honesty and even gentle humour. Thank you Jo, for sharing your journey.

  • emma2000

    I totally agree, anyone suffering from a terminal illness has the right to decide how and when to end their life. I have had cancer too, fortunately I am alright for now but should it return and be untreatable I would have no hesitation in taking the same path.

  • Bestuv Burke

    Arguably, the regard for responsibility has fallen low enough to undermine the very freedom upon which our prosperity and civilization rest.

  • Bryan

    This was good – an honest perspective.
    So much is said and written about how we should cling to the last breath because life is so precious… but is it – when life becomes unlivable, when pain and an immobile body intrude so deeply on the quality of life, then the time has surely come to move on.

  • willybach

    Bravo Jo for this article! I accompanied a friend – with terminal pancreatic cancer – to Dignitas near Zurich a few years because, although he wanted to end his life on his own terms, assisted suicide is not allowed in Britain. He was fortunate that he had the means to do this and was physically able (just) to make the trip. I await anxiously, but without a lot of hope, for the day when assisted suicide is legalized in Britain and not done, as happens today, with secrecy and guilt.

    • Retired Nurse

      Hardly secrecy anymore…they’ve all been on BBC Breakfast and the CPS have been told not to prosecute any of them now…

  • Retired Nurse

    How many friends of struck off Dr Michael Irwin (at Dignity in Dying) are reinforcing this poor woman’s fear of palliative care not being effective these days? That organisation are using media spin firm ‘sea change’ to shoot promo videos, and have just issued a ‘Casting Call’ on their twitter page….rather odd since the organisation website claims it has 25,000 members ..the ads here http://www.seachangeagency.com/casting/ ….you’d think their supporters could just be emailed, wouldn’t you?

  • Michael Brunner

    Why can’t Jo be allowed to choose when she wants to die? If she chooses to die then why does she have to end her own life by her own hand, alone in a room? Why can’t we as a country show her the compassion she deserves and allow someone to be in the room with her to hold her hand? If we were truly a civilised country then we would show her that compassion.

  • Daviejohn

    I read this with respect and sadness,I hope and wish dearly I will be as brave and courageous as you when my time comes near. Thank you and I wish you a peaceful journey.

  • Lloyd

    Does anyone know anything more about Jo? Is she still fighting the cancer? Does she write for this magazine often?

  • Yorkieeye

    Oh Jo, bless your heart. My Dad died from spinal bone cancer in a hospice last year. He was in there for 16 days and they managed to say the ‘D’ word on day 15! I would rather die in a busy hospital with proper palliative care than die in a hospice who kept wanting us to have quality time with my father. He died in agony. They can cope with cancer lite but they don’t want to have ‘that conversation’ (as one nurse put it) when the going gets tough.

  • JaguarSovereign

    Thank you, Jo. I hope you have also contacted Dignity in Dying.
    For those of us without a terminal illness the subject of death still needs to be talked about in both serious and funny conversations, because far too many people simply will not contemplate it. Not only have my wife and I talked a lot about it but we have also donated our bodies to medical science. We may not be able to do much during life but if the scientists can use our cadavers to good effect then so much the better, and much better than rotting in the ground or causing pollution in the atmosphere.

    I blame the Victorians for all the overdone fuss and hullaballoo when most people die. Instead we should all be celebrating a life lived to the full, and hopefully a long age. It is very sorrowful when a child dies and we can understand the parents grief; that cannot change. The same applies for the death of a teenager and any other relatively young person especially when death occurs from an accident. We feel that they have never had a life. Yet even a short life is a celebration.

    It is time to put aside the weeping and wailing; it serves no purpose other than to make life for those closest to the deceased even harder to face and to ‘move on’. While it is right to keep the memories, and enjoy them, it is also good to enjoy the continued life to the full. This can be made easier by having a humanist departure, not a funeral or going anywhere near a crematorium. In fact I believe it is time to move away from the very use of the word funeral. ‘Funereal’ carries dreadful connotations.

    So if death is, as we all know, inevitable then planning for it makes a lot of sense. Making it a celebration has so much positiveness about it. Surely then we should all be able to decide when it is our time to go, having taken the time and a lot of thought about it and made it legal while we are compos mentis with no pressure from anyone or anything. The battle here is only just beginning; I hope it is not going to be a very long one.

  • Al Egro

    Those of the liberty school recognize that centralized power should be limited due to the limits of human reason and the ignorance each of us harbors regarding most things.

  • ghstn

    Apparently this lady died without the use of the drugs, peacefully, in October.