Canterbury cancer sufferer on choosing 'the date I want to die'


Judy Swaney knitting Humpty Dumpty toys at home for charity. Photo: Supplied
Judy Swaney knitting Humpty Dumpty toys at home for charity. Photo: Supplied
Judy Swaney of Ashburton feels at peace.

The 72-year-old retired aged care worker has made a major decision in recent months – to have an assisted death.

Judy has terminal cancer and is receiving palliative care. She lives at home with her husband of 54 years, Dennis.

Judy’s cancer journey began in 2010, when she started to feel unwell but did not know what was wrong with her.

‘‘I was unaware I had it, but knew I was tired and, while hungry, didn’t want to eat. They discovered a two-and-half kilogram tumour pressing on my kidney and spleen,’’ she said.

Judy had surgery to have the two organs removed.

In 2014 she suffered a stroke, and was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015.

‘‘Three years ago I was told I had stage four metastasized cancer in my other kidney, lungs, bladder and gallbladder,’’ she said.

‘‘My gallbladder specialist told me three years ago this month, have your gallbladder out within two weeks or you will be dead in two months!’’

Judy and husband Dennis with Millie the cat. Photo: Supplied
Judy and husband Dennis with Millie the cat. Photo: Supplied
Judy knew she did not want more surgery, so refused.

Three years later, she is still here today, but knows her time is limited.

She finds comfort in the fact that while it was never a choice to have cancer, she does have a choice on where and when she will die.

‘‘It’s scary and you have no control. Making my own decision with Dennis’s and my family’s support has given me back some control,’’ Judy said.

‘‘Having made the choice, we now have time to talk about it,’’ she said.

‘‘My funeral has been planned for three years. But given we now have time, we can tweak things, and I know it’s all sorted. So when the time comes, Dennis and the family don’t have to think what I would like, or stress about it.

‘‘At my memorial service, I want fun and laughter. I want funny stories to be told.

‘‘Through my life, especially my work in aged care, I have met so many characters who had so many funny stories to share with their families, and that’s what I want.’’

Judy also finds comfort knowing Dennis, and her children, grandchildren and wider family, will not have to see her suffer a painful death.

‘‘After watching my dad suffer and pass away from lung cancer 30-plus years ago, I didn’t want that,’’ Judy said.

Bringing laughter and happiness to residents at Rosebank Home and Hospital in 2022 are (from left...
Bringing laughter and happiness to residents at Rosebank Home and Hospital in 2022 are (from left) Judy Swaney, diversional therapist Debbie Shaw and fellow diversional therapist Nic Adlam from Australia. Photo: Supplied
Today as Judy lives her life, she finds some days are better than others.

She is grateful for pain management, courtesy of her GP, medical specialists and Ashburton Hospital palliative care team.

She enjoys simple things, such as reading and knitting, while conserving her energy for days when she can spend time with her family or go out for coffee with friends and former colleagues.

On the day the Ashburton Courier visited, the knitting needles were frantically clicking as she made Humpty Dumpty toys for Ronald McDonald House and her friend’s charity Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.

Knitting is a longtime passion, one that has seen her make hundreds of beanies for the Christchurch City Mission to give to the homeless. In recent times Judy has also knitted trauma teddies for St John.

And while her life has been upended by cancer, some things have not changed.

They include her bubbly personality and positive outlook, not to mention her love of chocolate.

With regard to the latter, Whittaker’s is her favourite, and Dennis has to buy two blocks each time to ensure he gets the right variety.

Dennis and Judy Swaney on their wedding day 54 years ago. Photo: Supplied
Dennis and Judy Swaney on their wedding day 54 years ago. Photo: Supplied
Judy leaves a life of professional achievement behind her.

She and Dennis are the former managers of Para Rubber in Ashburton. Latterly, she worked as a diversional therapist in aged care, 10 years at Rosebank Hospital and 10 years at Ashburton Day Care, retiring five years ago. She then volunteered at the day care for three years. While working at Rosebank, she undertook diversional therapist training at polytech, completing the four-year course in just two years.

She and Dennis also have had a life full of wonderful family memories together.

The couple brought up three sons and have five grandchildren. Judy remembers where it all began when she met Dennis at the age of just 15.

She said she was invited to his 21st the following year, but her dad was not too sure he wanted his daughter going, as he had never met Dennis.

So a meeting was arranged at her home. But when Dennis turned up, he was not too sure how things would go as he was greeted by her dad who happened to be carrying his deer stalking knife at the time.

‘‘It all went well and we got on fine,’’ Dennis said.

Judy and Dennis are grateful for the law change in New Zealand which allowed assisted dying to become legal in 2021.

Judy said she was a supporter even before she began to consider it as an option for herself. After her terminal cancer diagnosis three years ago, she wanted to find out more, but learned there were no doctors in Ashburton offering it. So she turned to Google.

‘‘We found a doctor in Christchurch who was very switched on, very encouraging and very easy to talk to,’’ Judy said.

‘‘Doctors aren’t allowed to raise it with a patient, there are no pamphlets in doctors' waiting rooms about it because they can’t be seen to be influencing people,’’ Judy said.

‘‘We wanted to talk to the Ashburton Courier about this option, because if people don’t talk about it how will people know they have this choice, as medical professionals can’t raise it with a patient.’’

Recently she and Dennis took part in a Zoom meeting to participate in an assisted dying survey. Dennis suggested they needed to get the message out to people that this is an option.

‘‘It shouldn’t be hidden away where medical people can’t put it out there as an option along with other options,’’ he said.

Judy initially did not meet one of the main criteria, being that her illness would be likely to cause her death within six months.

But by January this year she did meet that criteria, something two doctors had to agree on.

‘‘I was then asked to choose the date I wanted to die,’’ Judy said.

Judy has chosen this date, and shared it with her close family. She can choose to bring the date forward if she wishes. Equally, if she does not wish to proceed on the chosen date, she can go ahead with another date.

Judy is aware of different views around assisted dying, but said for herself and her family it has been the right choice.

‘‘For some people their religious beliefs mean they are opposed to assisted dying,’’ Judy said.

‘‘Or they haven’t seen a loved one suffer,’’ Dennis said.

While her family, including her 93-year-old mum and six siblings, were heartbroken at the thought of losing her, they all supported her choice.

By Dellwyn Moylan