Erika is a professor of Medical Social Work at New Mexico State University and a mother of two living with stage 4 breast cancer, former New Mexico resident. You can read more stories from medical aid in dying supporters in our 2021 New Mexico Storybook.
I want to live. I really want to live. I have kids who I want to be here for. However, I know it will be less time than I thought. I will do everything I can to live well. But, what I have learned in the hardest and most painful moments, when my tumors were large and my treatment in- tense, is that I want to have the ability to end my suffering and avoid a painful, prolonged death.
I was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in February 2018 when I was eight and a half months pregnant with my second child. Four days after diagnosis, labor was induced so that I could quickly begin treatment. I started chemotherapy just two weeks after giving birth to my son.
During my first experience with chemo, my vein collapsed. Due to the urgent need for treatment, they found another vein to administer the incredibly caustic medication, a medication so dangerous the medical staff had to wear hazmat suits. The whole experience was terrifying. Then, it was discovered that the chemo was ineffective.
I could feel and see my cancer growing — the dark shadowy shape under my skin. It was disturbing. I had a biopsy to confirm the type of breast cancer and was told it was triple negative — an aggressive, rapidly growing cancer that is quick to spread and is more likely to come back after treatment than other types of breast cancer.
I tried another chemo, but I didn’t have any luck with that either. We did another biopsy because sometimes they get a false triple negative. Still triple negative. We already knew it was in my lymph nodes, but we learned it was now in my liver and bones.
I moved back home to Arkansas from New Mexico in my fifth year of teaching at New Mexico State University. In Arkansas, I would have the support of my parents during this challenging time.
At the end of 2018, I tried immunotherapy along with chemo, however, I developed severe side effects to the immunotherapy and doctors advised me to stop. I experienced multiple auto-immune issues, including a full body rash, severe arthritis, off the chart hypothyroidism and then hyperthyroidism. This continued for nearly a year after stopping all immunotherapy treatment. The side effects were extremely physically and emotionally difficult.
I’ve tried different treatments, and they would maybe work for a while, but the cancer would become resistant to the treatment or I would have a negative reaction and would have to change, or it wasn’t effective to begin with — but we had to try. I know that could easily happen with my current regimen.
There’s always a new health crisis. There’s always something happening and I’m very lucky that my prognosis is somewhat better for now, but you don’t ever stop having stage 4 cancer. It never goes away.
The psychological symptoms of some of the physiological realities are distressing. I was running half marathons before this. I ran one right before I got pregnant with my son. I thought I was very healthy.
The decision to utilize medical aid in dying should be a decision for me and my family to make. We know my health is going to turn one of these times without turning back around. One cannot truly imagine what it feels like to be face to face with imminent death until you are there. It is such a unique experience and if my last days of suffering—pain, fear, anxiety—can be eased by allowing me the autonomy to decide when enough is enough. I just don’t understand why legislators wouldn’t allow that.
I wish I had endless time to watch my son grow up and watch my daughter continue to flourish in her adulthood, but my time is extremely limited. It’s hard enough to know I’m dying, especially with a toddler and another child in college, but to know that my family might watch me suffer unnecessarily for weeks or months is gut-wrenching. I want the option of medical aid in dying.