Choosing when I want to die

Thinking about a good death: Jo Beecham is suffering from incurable ovarian cancer and has decided to take an overdose to kill herself. (Supplied)

Thinking about a good death: Jo Beecham is suffering from incurable ovarian cancer and has decided to take an overdose to kill herself. (Supplied)

When I was first diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer in 2011, I focused on cure: two clinical trials, two rounds of chemotherapy.

But the cancer came back a year after my initial treatment. I was told I couldn’t be cured. I decided to take control, and got a barbiturate drug from Mexico that is sitting in my fridge.
Every now and then I take it out and have a look: it gives me great comfort.

When the time comes, I will draw the line for myself. I want to be quite present, propped up in bed, having a conversation with people. I want someone to hold my hand.

There are five friends who want to be there. Their being present in a room is not considered aiding and abetting, but I will need to be well enough to get the drug from the fridge, go back up the stairs and measure it out. Well enough – and brave enough.

I’ve drawn the line.

I’m assuming that because the cancer is in my liver, I will see my body filling up with fluid. My ankles will swell, my face will go yellow. That’s my line. But I can’t know the order of events. I have had days when I’ve thought: “Right, today’s the day, I can’t bloody stand it.” But it’s not really the day. Maybe I will pass the line and miss it. Maybe I have to bring the line closer.

I don’t break the law – I’m not that sort of person. Yet I did give about $600 to a stranger in Mexico for a drug that may or may not be what it says it is. I was terrified it wouldn’t arrive or would be blocked at customs here in Britain. I’ve had it in the fridge for over a year now.

I’ve been assured by people on an online forum that if you take an anti-sickness pill, followed by the drug and then a bit of alcohol or chocolate (the drug is very bitter) you will fall asleep and die. It will be peaceful. And that’s all I want.

I can understand people wanting to go down the palliative-care route. There is some part of me that thinks: “Oh, just submit to the care.” I’m sure that people who are ill want the system to take care of them. But no one can guarantee I will have a good death. I’ve been told that the likelihood is I will need 24-hour care, probably sleeping for most of the time. Maybe, if I start taking morphine and drifting off anyway, that might be okay for me too. But I want to have the choice.

I told everybody the drugs were in the fridge. One of my sisters was very resistant to the idea. She hated it, understandably. She became anxious I’d take my life at any point. But the luxury of having a terminal illness, over months, is that you can bring people along over time. My sister is now more of an advocate for assisted dying than she was. She certainly doesn’t want me to suffer. Nor do my parents.

Permission is a big part of this. I am constantly looking for permission. “Is this okay? I’m going to go.”

I’ve been told a lot of people die when their loved ones leave the room. People say: “You can go now,” which suggests that when you’re in this place that I’m in, you want people who are alive to give you permission to go. Which, of course, is very hard to do.

I feel I’m living very well at the moment because I’m thinking about a good death. I’m having real communication with people. And it’s because I’m connected to people that I feel I can live.

The crazy thing is, I’ve written about what I’m doing, some friends are making a film of me, and some part of me feels that when I’m dead I can find my way back to myself. That’s so illogical, but the thought is giving me comfort. I will be in the public domain. It will be easier to find me. All these crazy things we think about when we don’t know where we’re going. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

Jo Beecham was interviewed by Paula Cocozza

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