This week, CBS’ “60 Minutes” TV show reported that FDA has just granted “breakthrough status” for an innovative treatment for glioblastoma brain cancer that was first reported by 60 Minutes on March 29, 2015.
Brittany Maynard had glioblastoma and died by physician-assisted suicide on November 1, 2014, just 5 months before the original TV segment aired.
Brittany Maynard was a young newly wed who, with enormous media publicity and the support of the pro physician-assisted suicide group Compassion and Choices, announced her intention to commit assisted suicide and asked for donations to the Brittany Maynard Foundation to raise money to help Compassion and Choices fight for legalization of physician-assisted suicide throughout the US.
Using Brittany’s story and foundation, Compassion and Choices was finally successful after years of failed attempts to get a physician-assisted suicide law passed in California.
Did Brittany, her doctors or Compassion and Choices know about the promising clinical trials for glioblastoma reported by “60 Minutes” before Brittany took her life with a physician ordered lethal overdose?
Although reported medical breakthroughs are frequent and often over-hyped or prove disappointing, information is available at ClinicalTrials.gov, a registry and results database of publicly and privately supported clinical studies of human participants conducted around the world. This service was developed by the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration and made available to the public in February 2000.
The Decision to Forego Treatment
According to Brittany’s own words:
After months of research, my family and I reached a heartbreaking conclusion: There is no treatment that would save my life, and the recommended treatments would have destroyed the time I had left…
I probably would have suffered in hospice care for weeks or even months. And my family would have had to watch that.
No one is ethically obligated to try any experimental or unduly burdensome treatment for such conditions but many people do so not only for a possible cure but also to potentially gain more time or to advance medical research. I saw this when I was an oncology nurse and also in my personal life.
For example, a few years ago, a friend developed a usually terminal lung cancer and agreed to try an unusual and massive combination of chemotherapy and radiation. As explained by her doctors, the side effects were very tough on her but today she is happy, active and enjoying her life and her grandchildren. Her cancer continues to be in remission. Success stories like this were unimaginable of when I first became a nurse.
But while treatment of a serious or terminal condition can be a personal choice, killing oneself-with or without medical assistance-must not be treated as just another valid treatment “option”.
Hard Cases Make Bad Law
“Hard cases make bad law” is an old legal adage that means that an extreme case is a poor basis for a general law that would cover a wider range of less extreme cases. This is particularly true when it comes to physician-assisted suicide where the slippery slope expanding the pool of potential victims has become a superhighway.
I also remember when AIDS, not glioblastoma, was the “hard case” used to justify physician-assisted suicide in the 1990s because it was also considered terminal.
But by 1998, the CDC issued the first national treatment guidelines for the use of antiretroviral therapy in adults and adolescents with HIV Today, AIDS is no longer considered an automatic death sentence and those with AIDS can even achieve normal lifespans.
But how many despairing people in the 1990s resorted to suicide, assisted or not, when the treatment for AIDS was so close?
Hope can be life-enhancing as well as life-saving.
Sadly, as one brain tumor expert poignantly wrote, Brittany Maynard’s “suicide was a blow to fellow brain tumor patients who were living in hope”.