“Take Your Medicine” Taken To The Extreme

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 12 2015 @ 12:32pm

A reader writes:

Essentially the question is whether a 17 year-old can commit suicide, but with the added complication that she doesn’t understand that’s what she’s doing. She is misinformed, to put it gently. I’ve had aggressive chemo for a different cancer. It sucks, sure. It’s strong medicine with strong side effects. But there are a lot of dangerous myths online that are simply not true. It doesn’t kill the rest of you. It isn’t more harmful than the disease itself (we’re talking cancer here). And we know from many, many years of experience and studies that more often than not it works. I can’t tell you how many posts I’ve seen on an Internet discussion board for my cancer from people who say that they chose to skip chemo, against their doctor’s recommendation, because they bought into these myths and now they have terminal, metastatic disease. And regrets.

We have to draw the line somewhere. We don’t let 12 year-olds make this kind of decision. It seems to me that 18 is a pretty good place to draw this line. And this girl has not demonstrated that she is particularly mature for her age.

I remember the series you had on suicide. I can’t remember the expert’s name, but one thing she said stayed with me: your future self will thank you for not committing suicide. There is no question in my mind that Cassandra’s future self will thank the judge for not allowing her to commit suicide.

Another reader also relates to the story from personal experience:

I am the parent of a cancer survivor, and I feel compelled to ask who is it who helped convince Cassandra she was being poisoned?

Her parents quite clearly.  My son was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive and very often fatal cancer when he was five years old. His treatment was as aggressive and toxic as was his disease and lasted more than three years. My wife and I spent those years – each and every day – agonizing over the question whether we were doing our level best to save him,  or torturing him to no avail and thus destroying whatever quality of life he might ever have. He had eight rounds of such high-dose and toxic chemo that one dose would have killed an adult because  mature organs would not be able to withstand the treatment.

Several surgeries, extensive radiation, and a host of experimental treatments on top of that exposed him to an array of side effects and collateral risks.  Many times we didn’t know if he would make it through the night. But we saw our duty to comfort and support him as best we could and not to quit until we were told there was no hope for him to survive.  We cried in private and smiled and joked whenever we were with him.  We felt we had to be strong for him, to explain that the medicine was killing the cancer, not hurting him, and reminding him that we loved him and wanted only for him to live a full and happy life. We NEVER suggested that avoiding the near term suffering was an option.

We held him close through the hard parts but tried to make him as happy as we could during the rest of it. We developed comedy routines about some of the worst aspects, and he soon was able to laugh about it all when he wasn’t too sick. We made it, and are eternally grateful to the most wonderful doctors and nurses on the planet and their commitment to trying to cure him. He is now 21 and healthy, happy and in love.

I have cried like a baby reading Cassandra’s story, as I have attended more funerals of children than anyone should have to, as has my son. I can assure you that all of the parents of those lost souls would give anything to trade places with Cassandra’s parents and have the hope of survival for their child, and that none of them would ever suggest to her – by either  commission or omission – that her treatment – as awful as it may seem – was worse than the disease.

Of course she doesn’t want to undergo the treatment. Her mother has told her or agreed with her that it is poison, and whom does a child trust more than her mother?  The discussion of legal rights and the boundaries between childhood and adulthood miss the real tragedy here. That a bit of parental courage and support and the situation would likely be much different; Cassandra would in my experience be viewing the treatment very differently despite its effects. But as it is, it seems a no-win situation for no reason other than fear.  It is absolutely shattering, but not because it is abrogating Cassandra’s rights.