On New Year’s Day, Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman in San Francisco, learned she had brain cancer. The newlywed, hoping for a family, immediately had two surgeries to try and stop the tumor. But by April, her doctors determined the cancer was too aggressive to treat and gave her a prognosis of six months to live.
Maynard made headlines earlier this month when she publicly announced plans to take her own life when she feels the time is right. She said she will do so by swallowing a pill, prescribed by her doctor, and in her possession.
“I do not want to die. But I am dying,” she wrote for CNN Oct. 7. “And I want to die on my own terms.”
Initially considering hospice care, she said, ultimately she decided to relocate to Oregon, one of five states where physician-assisted suicide is legal.
“Because the rest of my body is young and healthy, I am likely to physically hang on for a long time… I probably would have suffered in hospice care for weeks or even months,” she wrote. “And my family would have had to watch that.”
If she changes her mind, she said, she will not take the medication.
“Having this choice … has given me a sense of peace during a tumultuous time that otherwise would be dominated by fear, uncertainty and pain.”
Maynard’s story has initiated a widespread conversation about assisted suicide. A video she made for Compassion and Choices, an advocate for physician-assisted suicide, has been viewed more than 6 million times. Many have responded with messages of concern, prayers and pleas to not take her life, including a Colorado Springs mother of four young children, Kara Tippetts, also suffering with incurable brain cancer.
“We see you, we see your life, and there are countless lovers of your heart that are praying you would change your mind,” Tippetts, 36, wrote in a letter to Maynard Oct. 8 that has been shared on social media more than a million times.
Tippetts, a member of Westside Church where her husband is pastor, also expressed her sympathy and understanding in being asked to “walk a road that feels simply impossible to walk,” and thanked Maynard for bringing the discussion to light.
“Brittany, your life matters, your story matters, and your suffering matters,” she wrote. “I think the telling of your story is important.”
If choosing her own death, Tippetts continued, she would rob herself and her loved ones of the opportunity to care for her.
“That last kiss, that last warm touch, that last breath matters,” she said, “but it was never intended for us to decide when that last breath is breathed.”
A seminarian in the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., Philip Johnson, also suffering from untreatable brain cancer wrote to Maynard, where he shared his related feelings of fear and at times, hopelessness.
“Like Brittany, I do not want to die, nor do I want to suffer the likely outcome of this disease,” he wrote in an Oct. 22 letter. “This terrifies me, but it does not make me less of a person. My life means something to me, to God, and to my family and friends, and barring a miraculous recovery, it will continue to mean something long after I am paralyzed in a hospice bed.”
Johnson was diagnosed in 2008 at age 24 while serving his second Navy deployment in the Persian Gulf—doctors suggested he would survive about 18 months. He was discharged from the Navy and pursued his longtime dream of becoming a priest. He hopes to be ordained to the diaconate this spring and the priesthood next year.
“There have been times over the past six years that I wanted the cancer to grow and take my life swiftly so that it would all be over,” he admitted. At the same time, he also hoped for a miracle.
“I now realize that a ‘miracle’ does not necessarily mean an instant cure. If it did, would we not die from something else later in our lives? Is there any reason we deserve 15, 20, or 30 or more years of life?” he wrote. “Every day of life is a gift, and gifts can be taken away in an instant.”
He’s experienced countless miracles, he said, in places he never expected to find them, such as in hospitals and nursing homes.
“Through my interaction with these people, I received much more than I gave. I learned that the suffering and heartache that is part of the human condition does not have to be wasted and cut short out of fear or seeking control in a seemingly uncontrollable situation,” he shared. “Perhaps this is the most important miracle God intends for me to experience.”
He will continue to pray for Maynard, he said, and join in her suffering.
“I still cry. I still beg God to show me his will through all of this suffering,” he wrote. “May Brittany come to understand the love that we all have for her before she takes her own life, and that if she chooses instead to fight this disease, her life and witness would be an incredible example and witness to countless others.”
Deacon Alan Rastrelli, M.D., with St. Thomas More Parish in Centennial, is the medical director of a local Catholic hospice, Divine Mercy Supportive Care. He helps patients and families navigate through end-of-life—what he described as “this most important part of their lives.”
The prevalence of Maynard’s story has provided an opportunity for people to share the stories of thousands of terminally ill patients who choose not to end their lives with physician-assisted suicide, he said, but instead receive care through their natural end.
“We must pray,” he said, “that Brittany and others in her situation will respect and cherish the great gift that their lives are to all of us by living to a cared-for end.”
Read Kara Tippett’s letter here
Philip Johnson’s letter here
Divine Mercy Supportive Care: www.dmsci.org or 303-357-2540