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Terminal patients ask New York to legalize help with dying

Susan Rahn during treatment for Stage 4 breast cancer (Provided photo)

It isn't easy to stand in front of TV cameras and talk about your own death. "Everybody should have lots of options. It shouldn't be an either/or," said Susan Rahn.

Rahn has stage four breast cancer. On Monday, she traveled to Albany to ask lawmakers to reintroduce and support a dying with dignity law. "It gives me peace of mind I won't have to potentially suffer in those last final weeks if my medical options do run out," she said.

Five states already allow patients with a life expectancy of six months or less to receive enough medication to allow them to peacefully end their lives. A physician would prescribe the dose after several counseling sessions. But it would be up to the patient when and if to take the medication.

The issue went all the way to the US Supreme Court in 1997. A Rochester physician was at the center of the debate. Dr. Timothy Quill wrote about assisting the death of a Pittsford patient identified only as "Diane." "The practice that I've written about is practiced in secret with some frequency," he told 13WHAM News in 1997.

As the US Supreme Court took up the life and death issue, busloads of disabled people from Rochester were among the hundreds protesting outside. "We were all there for one purpose. To speak out against it," said Anita Cameron, who was there.

Cameron has MS and suffers a degenerative brain disorder that is stealing away her motor functions. She also works with a group called "Not Dead Yet." "Society almost teaches that you're being brave and unselfish if you choose to kill yourself," she told 13WHAM's Jane Flasch.

Her's is one face of the debate. Cathy Quinn is another. In 2013, she was diagnosed with tongue cancer. Within two years, it would come back four times despite radical surgeries. Her diagnosis was terminal. "There was a lot of angst and worry as to what it was going to be like to actually die," said her boyfriend Scott Barraco.

He shows a smiling photo of Cathy on a foreign beach on a cruise just before her death. By that time, she could no longer speak and all her meals were coming from a feeding tube. Without a dying with dignity law, she made the only other plan she could with her doctor. "The most she could do to hasten her death was to voluntarily stop eating and drinking," said Barraco. "She preferred this over waiting for the cancer to come and get her."

Medical aid in dying laws allow patients with a life expectancy of six months or less to receive counseling, then to obtain a prescription for medication. It's the patient, not the doctor, who determines whether to use it and when the time is right. "She just wanted that option," said Barraco.

The Catholic Church is among those opposed to the law. "We believe that the lives of people who are gravely ill or facing death are no less valuable than others. (We) advocate for the dignity of every human life," says a position statement provide to Channel 13.

Some people who are disabled see it as promoting a "better dead than disabled" mindset. "These laws are inherently discriminatory against people with disabilities. But I can live a great life as a person with a disability without being a burden," said Cameron.

Susan Rahn knows her life will end sooner than it should. So her fight is really for how her last days, hours and moments will impact her son. "I have spent the last three years making special memories with my son. It gives me peace of mind that I won't leave my son with a memory that will wipe out all the others."

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