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Two brave women who relinquished hope when it turned cruel

Being brave doesn't always mean fighting to the last breath. Now and then, being brave means sweet surrender to what once seemed like an enemy but is really a friend.

That's what two women have proved by their different responses to a sentence of death.

Actor Lynda Bellingham, whose funeral was held yesterday, stopped the treatment for her cancer, knowing that its abandonment would speed her dying, but knowing too that continuing the treatment would change her into somebody she didn't want to be.

Buying time at the expense of reality was not a good deal for her. She did not, she said, want to be unrecognisable when she died, hollowed out into haggardness by chemotherapy.

She still had the hope that she might see Christmas, but her life ended long before the tinkling bells and sprinkling sparkles and the lights and the presents. Death took her swiftly after the treatment stopped.

One last television programme, where she was her gorgeous, recognisable glimmering self, and then down came the curtain.

It was her choice, and it cannot have been an easy choice, because we have trained ourselves to fight cancer, to use the language of battle about cancer, to talk of possible victory, to demand to the very end that those we love get every new treatment.

dignity

Even when they no longer have a fighting chance, we urge them on, damning them with the duty to have hope so that relinquishing life must seem like a failure, like the action of someone with a deficit of courage.

Lynda Bellingham reminded the world of the centrality of dignity and joy in a situation where to peddle hope is a form of cruelty.

When Brittany Maynard faced a similar diagnosis, she was an unknown, anonymous 29-year-old American.

Now, three days after her death, hers is a loved and familiar name and face to the more than 10 million people who have visited the website where she talks of her plan - executed this week - to die with dignity.

When Brittany (right) was diagnosed earlier this year with terminal cancer, she wasn't given an immediate death sentence, but after she underwent surgery it became precisely that when the cancer was revealed to be in an advanced stage.

The time available to her reduced to perhaps six months.

She took up residence in Oregon, one of the five US states that facilitate death with dignity (in other words, with medical help) where someone is suffering from a terminal cancer.

She was duly prescribed medication which would take her life away without suffering, when she chose to do it.

Then she travelled to places she had always wanted to visit. She travelled with her husband on one of her trips, with a girlfriend and then with her mother.

Having announced to the world via the internet that she would take her own life on November 1, she later said she might extend that if she continued to feel comfortable.

The comfort stopped, and she took the tablets that had provided much relief and comfort in the previous months.

COURAGE

Those tablets had provided her with the knowledge, as she put it, that "I don't have to die the way it's been described to me that my brain tumour would take me on its own".

In recent days two brave women have moved millions beyond a coercive consensus and redefined courage in the face of terminal cancer.

For Lynda Bellingham and Brittany Maynard, the courage was in choosing to relinquish the agony of hope.


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