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High-altitude climber advocating for the choice to die

Al Hancock holds a picture of his mother Rosemary Hancock who died of cancer, in Edmonton Alberta, October 13, 2014. Hancock believes in having a choice in ending your own life.

JASON FRANSON/The Globe and Mail

As one of the world's top high-altitude climbers, Al Hancock knows something about pain and suffering.

But the pain he experiences getting to the summit of Mount Everest, K2 and the world's highest peaks, he said, is productive and purposeful, "so that's okay." When his mother, Rosemary, was dying from cancer, he witnessed a different kind of suffering – intractable and without purpose.

"It was cruel," Mr. Hancock said. "Nobody should have to suffer like that. She should have had a choice to die on her own terms." His mom died last Thanksgiving, at age 76, after a long battle with bowel cancer. Mr. Hancock said cancer spread throughout her body and that, in the final days, her pain was relentless, despite the large doses of morphine that were administered.

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"Those final days at her bedside will haunt me forever," he said.

Mr. Hancock, a resident of Edmonton, left the hospital shaken and demoralized. He travelled to Nepal to perform a Puja, a Hindu ritual to honour his mother's memory.

While doing so, he realized he needed to do more, and upon his return to Canada decided to become an advocate for assisted death, and a patron of the advocacy group Dying With Dignity Canada.

"I think the time for choice in dying has come, and I'm not alone," Mr. Hancock said, pointing to a recent poll.

The survey, conducted by Ipsos Reid, found that 91 per cent of Canadians agreed with the statement that a person should not be compelled to endure drawn-out suffering. The poll also showed that a large majority, 84 per cent, agreed with the statement that a "doctor should be able to help someone end their life if the person is a competent adult who is terminally ill, suffering unbearably and repeatedly asks for assistance to die." The findings are important because, later this week, the Supreme Court of Canada will hear a case in which it is being asked to declare unconstitutional the Criminal Code provisions that make assisted suicide a crime. The court refused to strike down the law in a similar case two decades ago, saying it would offend Canadian values.

The key question now is: Have those values changed?

Wanda Morris, the head of Dying With Dignity, said she is convinced they have, and is "cautiously optimistic" that the court case will succeed.

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While awaiting the ruling, which will come months after the one day set aside for legal arguments, what is important is that Canadians openly discuss their end-of-life wishes with their loved ones, she said.

Mr. Hancock said that not having done so is one of his biggest regrets.

"We never had the conversation about death, and what kind of death she wanted," he said.

"To this day, I don't know if my mom would have chosen assisted death. But what I know is she should have had the choice." Mr. Hancock said that the taboo about discussing death is dissipating and, as a result, people will insist on having a say in how their care is managed at end of life.

"I know one thing: I will never allow myself to die like my mom," he said. "She wasn't given the choice of dignified death, and that's wrong."

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More

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