Terminally ill man Stuart Armstrong responds to a first-person piece on assisted dying Newsroom ran last week, arguing people should have the option to choose a death that reflects their life and beliefs 

This week Serena Jones wrote an article describing her position on the upcoming referendum on the End of Life Choice Act.

Like her, I am living with terminal cancer.

However, I hold very different views on the Act.

Why will I be forever grateful for David Seymour’s tireless work in bringing this law forward?

I’m a 60-year-old energetic, sporting man who has lived, by any measure, an active life. I have two adult children (Rachel 31, Sean 29) and a wonderful and supportive wife (Rebecca). Add to that my extended family and friends and you can see I’m a lucky guy albeit one in an unlucky position.

Six years ago I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. A series of PSA tests indicated that I was slightly outside the normal levels for my age and as my father had undergone both surgery and radiotherapy to survive his prostate cancer (he’s still here aged 85!) I decided in conjunction with my GP to have a biopsy of my prostate gland. For the medically curious, it’s called a TRUS (Trans Rectal Ultrasound Guided) biopsy. I had two sets of these, seven months apart. Both sets of results gave a Gleason Score of 6/10. This score can be interpreted to mean the location of the cancer was most likely still within the prostatic capsule and the type of cancer was not necessarily aggressive. I still remember celebrating with my family with a restaurant meal and a good splash of drinks.

Just five months later, the next PSA test result was still heading in the wrong direction and I was confronted with the unexpected and ugly realisation that the biopsies had not revealed the full picture. A more conclusive ‘saturation biopsy’ showed a Gleason Score of 9/10 and a very likely ‘life-limiting’ prognosis.

Anyhow, enough about how I got here…

I want to expose the failings in logic and understanding in Serena Jones’ article.

At the heart of her writings was her belief that somehow the availability as an option, of some medical assistance to die, will be detrimental to the patient-doctor relationship. To quote her, this is an “avoidance to this commitment” (to good palliative care).

Even more disingenuous is her claim that doctors who choose to assist a patient to die are taking a “shortcut, or an exit … to avoid understanding and participating in the actual requirements of care”. I consider this her most egregious slight against a profession which, in my experience, demonstrates on a daily basis, empathy and importantly compassion, for people in our position.

Jones then notes there are “many hundreds” of doctors against this End of Life Choice Act. What she fails to mention however, is that there is widespread support from healthcare professionals, including many working in our palliative care services, for end of life choice. This mirrors more than 20 years of polling on this issue that has consistently reported that 65-70 percent of New Zealanders are indeed in favour of a law such as this.

Why is that, do you think? It’s likely, at least in part, to be a response to the fact that even our palliative care services in New Zealand, which Jones quite rightly quotes as being rated the third highest quality in the world, cannot mitigate the awful suffering of between 2-5 percent of their patients at the end of their life. There is even a book that documents this rather grisly scenario. It rather bluntly, but at least honestly, is titled Dying Badly in New Zealand.

Now let’s deal with the ‘elephant in the room’ regarding her argument…

Jones would have us believe that somehow End of Life Choice was compulsory. That doctors were being forced into participating and patients coerced alongside them.

That is the underlying premise of her article no matter how she skirts around it.

But it’s untrue.

It is no accident that the law is called the ‘End of Life Choice Act’. It offers a choice that over 120 million people around the world already have access to.

Like many in my position, I do not want to die reliant on an ever-increasing dose of morphine, slowly but inexorably drawing me further from consciousness and closer to death.

I want my death to reflect my life and core beliefs … my definition of spirituality if you will.

I wish for a death, if I’m able, on the back of my horse Julia with my wife, family and friends around me for support. I will die as I have lived, with spirit, energy and passion.

Some doctors will choose to opt out of this service and the Act allows for individual conscientious objection. However, there are many more who will choose to honour and embrace the last wishes of their patients and through this last act of compassion facilitate for them an enlightened and more dignified death.

Stuart Armstrong is a wheelchair taxi driver living with cancer in Lincoln, Canterbury.

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