Good quality palliative care is not always available to patients. Even when it is, not all pain and suffering can be relieved adequately. What does it say about our society when we put animals out of their misery but allow people to suffer? Healthy people can take their own lives. But when a person's body lets them down, rendering them unable to end their own life without another person's help, this dignity in dying is denied them. Society takes away their final scrap of autonomy.
In 1990, acute pain on defecation prompted me to visit my GP. I had carcinoma of the anal. The cancer had spread and treatment was aggressive. (This is not the case any more - treatment is now much more targeted.) At the time I was told side effects would be nausea, tiredness, diarrhoea and wind. Nobody mentioned pain. Once treatment began pain levels rose daily. I kept thinking the pain must have peaked, but it continued to increase.
Eventually, strong drugs called MST were prescribed, but they did little to alleviate the pain. Finally, short-acting Palfium helped, as long as I got the timing right.
The level of pain I experienced during my cancer treatment was unendurable, but had to be endured. People who have never experienced terrible pain can have no concept of such suffering. I felt as if I was being tortured, because the pain kept rising and I knew it would continue in the days and weeks to come. I remember thinking halfway through treatment, 'so this is why soldiers fear a bullet in the stomach' and knew that if I had been a spy under torture I would have told all by then.
I tried to ensure future cancer patients would not endure such pain and started speaking out about cancer services, writing in patient journals, then medical journals. Adversity became opportunity. I became a medical writer, author and artist. But I could never knowingly go through that level of pain again.
I believe it is my right to decide when my death is preferable to my life.
I believe that those who assist me to die should bear no penalty.
I believe that people who have experienced, or expect to experience, extreme pain or suffering should be the ones whose voices determine the law on assisted dying.
I believe religious constraints should not influence laws, lives and deaths of people who may, or may not hold religious beliefs.
Should you want to contact any of the people featured in these pages, or wish to share your own story with us, please contact Jo Cartwright:
020 7479 7737 or 07725 433 025