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Debbie Black: To Die with Grace

Debbie Black lives in Carson City, Nevada.

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I was first diagnosed with breast cancer 28 years ago. My son was five months old at the time. For years, I didn’t realize how much my having cancer impacted him. But, then as now, my cancer has defined his life.

My Son’s Struggle

One day, when he was 8, his teacher pulled me aside after school. She told me that my son had throughout the whole day asked if he could move his desk. He wouldn’t tell her why he wanted to. Eventually, she took him to the office so he could talk to a counselor. It turns out there was a girl sitting behind him that was coughing. He was so afraid that she was going to give him germs and he would bring them back to me that he wanted to stay as far away from her as possible. The teacher and I cried together. How sad it was that this young boy had to be so afraid of the world in order to protect his mother.


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The Cancer Spreads

For a long time, it was easy to forget I was sick. Following my mastectomy, I was in good health for more than 20 years. Then, in 2010, my world was turned upside down.

My breast cancer had metastasized and gone to my brain. I became paralyzed on my left side. I had to learn how to walk again and lost partial use of my left arm. I was unable to work, to dance, to bowl, or do any of the physical things that brought me joy.

I used to enjoy life. Since the cancer invaded my brain, I’ve become a recluse. It’s hard to be present while preparing to die.

Survivor’s Guilt

By any measurement, I have beaten the odds. Oncologists always tell me they’re very surprised to see me still here. I have a hard time processing that I’m still going strong, despite living with Stage 4 cancer. There’s never a moment when I’m not thinking about the next brain scan I will undergo and what it’s going to show.

It’s hard to explain to people how difficult it is to live in limbo. Many people stress how lucky I am to have lived this long. I know it’s a blessing; it’s hard not to feel survivor’s guilt.

I volunteer at a cancer center near my home. Patients die and their families grieve. I cry for the people that have lost loved ones too soon and wonder why I am alive and they are not. I hate that they had to suffer so much at the end of their lives. I know there is a better way.

Debbie Black and Son

Another Option

I first learned about death with dignity when I read the story of Brittany Maynard, the young woman dying of brain cancer who in 2014 moved from her home state of California to Oregon to access the Oregon Death with Dignity Act. (At the time, California did not have an assisted-dying law; the state passed its own aid-in-dying statute in 2015.)

It amazed me that there was a medical option for terminally ill, mentally capable individuals that helped make possible a peaceful and dignified death. It also infuriated me that this option was not available to most Americans, including me. Brittany shouldn’t have had to uproot her life to access medical aid in dying, and neither should I.

Sharing My Story

Several years ago, I connected with people who were pushing for passage of death with dignity legislation in Nevada and asked how I could help. In 2017, I testified before the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services. My son was there to support me.

Debbie Black and Son

I am not a public speaker. The experience was nerve-wracking. But I needed to share my story.

Many people just don’t understand why I would want to use medical aid in dying. I think if more people knew the pain and suffering I and others have endured with this disease—and what this disease can do to people in its final stages—they might understand my choice.

Grace, Not Suffering

I want to be myself when I die; I want to have a good time with my son and my granddaughter and my siblings while I still can. I want to be able to be conscious and say a proper goodbye to my family.

We’re all going to die someday. I want to be able to make the choice about how I spend my final days. It is a right all of us should have.

(January 2019)

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