In July, sick with cancer, Jo Beecham talked in this newspaper about stashing life-ending drugs in her fridge, in case she wanted to hasten her end. But as the disease wore on, she had second thoughts
Paula Cocozza Guardian/UK 26 October 2014
When Jo Beecham was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, her first instinct was to control the moment of her death, to bypass the worst of the pain. In fear, she bought some life-ending drugs, and in July this year, she gave an account in these pages of the challenges of living with poison hidden behind the bags of salad in the fridge.
Jo’s health has deteriorated quickly since then. But though the time to use it must be close, the poison has never felt more out of reach. Is it fear that is stopping Jo from choosing to use the drugs, which once offered reassurance but now seem to ask for too much strength? Or has she found a different kind of succour – in the form of Annie Lister, an independent cancer and palliative care expert with 30 years’ experience?
When Annie first met Jo in late spring, Jo had a detailed plan for her death, and Annie had “a long in the tooth” palliative carer’s belief that legalised assisted dying might be “the start of a slippery slope”. After all, Annie’s life’s work has been to soothe difficult endings. But the intensity and intimacy of Jo and Annie’s conversations have lifted the debate out of a moral maze and made it a matter of personal friendship. Over the past five months, Jo and Annie have travelled so far towards each other emotionally and intellectually that both have changed their minds about what makes a good death. While Annie has become more sympathetic to the idea of legalised assisted dying, Jo has chosen to confront the approach of death with palliative care.
These days, Jo says, the drugs “are not in my thinking”. What has made the difference, Jo says, is “Annie’s experience, her calmness. I’m being accompanied. I’m not alone. When I’m in pain and I don’t recognise it, and it’s really strong, it panics me. I want Annie more and more to be here. I know she’ll calm me quickly.
Has it felt challenging for Annie to care for someone who wants to anticipate the end, when her work is to manage symptoms until the end comes? “The truth is, I don’t think the palliative care world really had to think of assisted dying seriously,” she says. “Palliative care professionals have hidden behind the fact that it’s illegal.”
Annie has travelled to a point of great sympathy with, and affection for, Jo. Does she feel she could be there, at her side, if Jo wishes to end her life? “There is nothing professional to stop me being here, although I’m clear that I wouldn’t facilitate it,” says Annie. The drugs remain in the fridge, in the kitchen where the washing machine is whirring. The moment may have passed to take them. “I have felt from the beginning,” she says, “that if it was something Jo chose to do, that would be her choice, and I wouldn’t be able to control it.”
Would she feel that she had failed her patient? “I cannot honestly give an answer as to how it would feel in the event. I have a little worry that it may feel like a failure. I would need time, but I would know that I had given it my best shot to help her in this gentler, easier way for her, her friends and her family.”
It is difficult to know whether Jo’s feelings towards the drugs have changed because she has care now that works for her in the way that the poison once worked, offering control over the unknown she fears. Or how far her physical weakness – yesterday, she had to crawl up the stairs and she avoids moving “because I don’t want to see how much weaker I’ve got” – has rendered unfeasible the exertion required to self-administer an illegal drug.
Perhaps it is only the illegality, considered in her severely weakened state, that makes the choice so hard to contemplate. Jo remains a firm advocate of the legalisation of assisted dying, alongside excellent palliative care, her experience of which has mellowed her position. The drugs no longer appear to be what she wants.
“They may not be,” she says quickly, moving to sit up. “But maybe they are. Their presence, if not their use, makes the future feel navigable… Sometimes feeling drowsy and nodding off is a relief, because that’s where I see I’m going,” Jo says. “My body is driving my thoughts now. I’m going to sleep more, drift off and die. And not really be aware. That’s OK. The beauty of what’s in the fridge is that it is there if you change your mind.”
• Jo Beecham died peacefully at home, in the company of friends, on 15 October 2014, a week after this interview took place. The drugs stayed in the fridge until her friends disposed of them safely.