Public Health New Mexico
9:45 am
Fri January 31, 2014

A Cancer Patient's Take on Aid in Dying

Allie_Caulfield via Compfight cc—Aja Riggs stopped by the Muir Woods National Monument to see the giant redwoods. "To walk among them is like being in some kind of temple or sanctuary," she says.

Aja Riggs is on the road, visiting family and friends, and taking in some of the most beautiful natural places in the United States. She particularly loves what she calls "freaky natural things," like boiling mud coming out of the ground in Yellowstone and the organ pipe cacti near the Mexico border in Arizona.

"I'm kind of part-jokingly calling my travels my 'No Regrets Remission Tour,' " she laughs. 

Riggs' endometrial uterine cancer is expected to return, and if it does, she says matter-of-factly, it will take her life. So she's making the best of it, she says. "I just thought, OK, this is the time," she says. "No time like now. Better get it done." 

She's 50-years-old, and she was diagnosed three years ago. Her chances for survival were not great, she says. Surgery indicated the cancer was advanced and aggressive. During chemo and radiation, an additional tumor showed up that grew despite the treatments. 

"I started thinking a lot, very realistically, about what would it be like to die of cancer. And I just had the thought: I don't know if I want to go all the way to the end with a death from cancer." 

She isn't sure, she says. She hasn't made that decision. But at some point she began considering what it would take to create a more peaceful and gentle death. "Because I have a fear of implicating anybody close to me in what might have been seen as a crime, I thought about taking whatever steps I needed to do on my own. And then eventually, if I chose to do that, then I would be dying alone and in isolation."

She was listening to the radio and heard a story about two doctors in New Mexico who filed a lawsuit asking for the right to provide life-ending medications to terminally ill patients who requested it. Advocates call it "aid in dying," and its distinctions from assisted suicide are many, according to the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Most notably, doctors would not administer the drugs. 

Riggs joined the doctors in their lawsuit. "It was something I had to think a lot about because I'm not somebody who usually talks about myself," she says. "I'm not used to being out there in public, certainly, talking about such intimate personal matters, but it was too important to me to pass up."

While she was heading east earlier this month on her No Regrets tour, word came that District Court Judge Nan Nash ruled that it's legal for physicians to provide aid in dying. Nash's language was strong: “This court cannot envision a right more fundamental, more private or more integral to the liberty, safety and happiness of a New Mexican than the right of a competent, terminally ill patient to choose aid in dying,” she wrote.

The New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops opposes aid in dying and doesn't make a distinction between the practice and assisted suicide. "Effective treatment of pain should guarantee that no one will suffer a painful death," the bishops write. "Physicians and other caregivers have the obligation to maintain life and to relieve pain." That doesn't mean that person's life must be sustained by artificial means, points out Allen Sanchez, executive director of the group; a person can be allowed to die of natural causes. 

Attorney General Gary King is contemplating an appeal of the District Court decision, he told the Santa Fe New Mexican, in part because it's not clear whether the ruling applies only to Bernalillo County or to the entire state. 

For Riggs, the decision means she can picture continuing her care and treatment with her medical team all the way to the end of her life, she says. If the cancer comes back, she will be able "to be open and honest with my medical team, to have all of us, my physicians included, be able to consider every medically established humane and compassionate treatment and resource available," she says. "It just gives me a great sense of peace of mind."