My wife Yvonne was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. The first steps in her treatment were to remove the tumours and lymph nodes from her armpits, then a breast reconstruction, followed by radiation and chemotherapy. I supported her treatment by learning how to massage lymph fluid around her body.
After Yvonne recovered we bought a caravan and toured around Queensland for six months, enjoying the time together. One morning Yvonne had a terrible pain in her left leg. It turned out to be Deep Vein Thrombosis, with an enormous clot along the length of her leg. This can be fatal if a piece breaks off and makes its way to your heart or brain. Yvonne then learned to inject Clexane every day to thin her blood and avoid it happening again.
Like all drugs, Clexane had side-effects. Yvonne’s skin became like paper and was then prone to skin tears. She was often in bandages, and her arms looked like a battle ground with red and blue bruising, covered in scars. I woke one morning to hear Yvonne screaming. Yvonne had fallen and the skin on her arm had become unattached, right up to her armpit.
Yvonne developed pneumonia 13 times in the next two years and was on permanent oxygen. Domiciliary Care staff were brilliant and supplied an oxygen machine, a shower chair, a walker, a wheelchair, installed exit ramps to the house and more. I stopped paid employment in 2009 and became Yvonne’s full time carer. We managed a few more trips in the caravan, but eventually we had to stop the travelling.
Then we found that Yvonne's cancer had metastasized throughout her body. She had more chemotherapy as the disease destroyed one of her kidneys and several other organs, progressing steadily to the point where she was in pain almost constantly. Her body was starting to fail her. Yvonne tried to kill herself during this time, as the disease robbed her of her quality of life. More things started going wrong, and one of her vocal chords was damaged by the radiation.
During her second to last bout of pneumonia, Yvonne told me that if she got pneumonia again, she didn't want to be resuscitated. Her doctors told us she had only months to live. Even though I still hoped that things would improve, I agreed with Yvonne’s decision to reject further heroic interventions. This was a deeply emotional time.
The dreaded day came when I went to her room and found her on the floor. She was delirious and I knew she was near the end of her life. Our doctor diagnosed the return of pneumonia. Her medical records recorded her wish for DNR (do not resuscitate). The District Nurse was notified. A hospital bed was placed in our lounge room and I gave her several different injections each day for pain relief.
After the first week Yvonne lost consciousness, but not before reaching out to me, pulling me towards her and telling me that she loved me. Those were the last words she spoke. One week after our last words to each other, she passed away at 4:30 in the morning. As the ambulance crew were wheeling Yvonne down the garden path, I stopped them and unzipped the body bag to allow the sun to shine on her face, just one more time.
It might sound callous, but I felt an enormous sense of relief after she died. Grief, sadness, memories all happened in a moment. I did most of my grieving in those last few years, and I was sort of prepared for the inevitable outcome. We were together for 46 years, not all good years, but together years. In telling this story, I've only mentioned a few details of Yvonne's illness - I could probably write a book about the many harrowing experiences we went through together.
Having lived through this with Yvonne I believe it is inhumane that another human being should be made to suffer so much pain, both physical and mental. Along with the physical pain, you become dependent on others to keep you in a comfortable state, toilet you, keep you clean, and dress your wounds. You cannot do even the simplest things for yourself. Your quality of life is all but gone and every day is another day of pain and suffering. I know when my time comes, I pray for a quick finish, because no man or woman should have to suffer for ten years as Yvonne and many others like her do.
I would have looked after her no matter what, till death us do part, but I believe it should be a choice for every terminally ill person to decide when their time is right.