July 18, 2010 in City

The last word against cancer

His prognosis terminal, Dan Treecraft isn’t waiting for death to come to him
Story By John Stucke I Photos By Kathy Plonka The Spokesman-Review
 

Jan and Dan Treecraft share quality time at their Spokane home on June 27. Dan is suffering from tongue cancer and has decided to take his own life.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Sometimes he struggles with conversation. Droplets of spit, even blood, escape his mouth like wrong answers. He grimaces when swallowing.

He hates these moments, bringing a fist to his lips and looking away. He apologizes and then quickly leans close, eyes afire with a new thought, a new criticism of a medical system he sees as a greed-driven industry that is flipping off fate and getting rich doing it.

He frets over the idea of dying in a hospital, fed through a tube, dimmed by painkillers and hooked to machines. And the tests. Tests upon tests costing thousands of dollars that will confirm what he and everybody else already knows: Dan Treecraft, 61, is going to die.

Treecraft, relishing pastries at a local coffeehouse, cuts right to his point: “I’ve been told that 90 percent of Americans, when asked how they want to die, say they want to be at home, surrounded by family and friends. Instead 90 percent of Americans die in a hospital or institution, surrounded by strangers.”

“Not me,” he says, squinting as the early sun finds its way under the bill of his cap.

Treecraft is determined to take control.

Friends say goodbye

Diagnosed with tongue cancer last winter, Treecraft, who didn’t smoke or chew tobacco, was given six to 24 months to live.

He isn’t holding out for a miracle cure. He’s not even seeking treatment.

If he’s nervous about the coming day when he plans to slip a small mask over his mouth and nose and begin to breathe nitrogen gas, he doesn’t let on. If all goes according to plan, he will lose consciousness and die from asphyxiation. Perhaps this summer.

He has publicly embraced this choice.

In June he invited friends to a party – part roast and part wake.

“If people are going to party in my honor,” he said, “that’s a party I’m not going to miss.”

More than 120 showed. They brought dishes of food, and plates of desserts, cheese and fruit. There was beer and wine and some closely guarded fine liquor.

Most important, there were stories about Treecraft – some flattering, others embarrassing. Friends sang for him and a few read poems. Laughter and live music spilled from the party into the South Perry business district. Tears welled in the eyes of friends who hugged him tight.

It was everything Treecraft wanted: support, understanding and agreement.

What he can’t predict or control, however, is the toll on his wife, Jan.

At the very least he will not bankrupt her with unnecessary medical bills, Treecraft said.

He knows that his death will be easiest on him. He will be released from the pain and worry. She will be tasked with moving on.

“It’s so hard to stay focused on some inevitable day when Dan will die – most likely by his own hand,” Jan said. “We’re not there yet. I would like to live out what life we have left together.”

Treecraft said his greatest fear is that Jan may one day feel that he wasn’t fighting every day to stay alive to be with her.

“I never want her to perceive my death as a lack of caring for her.”

Asked how he would feel if their roles were reversed and Jan wanted to die, Treecraft shook his head. He didn’t have a good answer.

One of Treecraft’s friends at the wake was Dr. Ryan Holbrook, a surgical oncologist with Cancer Care Northwest.

He doesn’t agree with Treecraft’s plans, but he respects his friend’s choice.

“What I hope we can learn from Dan is this: We need to love, respect and honor the wishes of our loved ones,” Holbrook said.

Oftentimes patients and their families pull out all the stops. People who can’t bear the thought of their elderly parents dying subject them to treatments that keep them alive, though heavily sedated, and bed-bound for their final few months. “We don’t tend to see death as a normal thing that happens to all of us,” Holbrook said. “Maybe what we should be doing is providing comfort, and valuing their memories and stories.”

That may be easy to say and hard to do, acknowledged Holbrook, “because I have performed some major surgeries for people well into their 90s, and they are still going strong.”

Not seeking assisted suicide

Treecraft recognizes that his suicide will be controversial. It’s not illegal in the state of Washington. And voters a few years approved the Death with Dignity Act, allowing physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs.

Religious groups, notably the Catholic Church and its affiliated medical ministries such as hospital operator Providence Health Care, fought passage of the assisted suicide measure. Many church teachings consider suicide a serious sin. The Washington State Medical Association and its physician members were opposed.

Yet the measure passed handily, and last year 63 people received such drugs. The Washington State Department of Health reports 47 of them took the drugs and died.

Oregon and Montana also allow assisted suicide. The practice has been largely shunned in Spokane, where no hospitals allow it on their property. Doctors who may accept the idea privately worry about backlash.

Treecraft doesn’t want modern medicine playing a role in his death, so he’s not seeking help from a doctor.

Holbrook, who is not Treecraft’s doctor, did talk to his friend about tongue cancer and counseled him to listen to his physician. Palliative care has made big strides, and cancer patients don’t have to live in misery year after year.

But Treecraft is resolute, deciding six months ago he wouldn’t subscribe to the standard medical approach.

Tongue cancer is serious and relatively common. The Mayo Clinic reports that 10,000 Americans are diagnosed with tongue cancer every year. If caught early, it is curable. If not, it can be lethal.

In Dan’s case, it is considered terminal. Had Treecraft undergone surgery, it might have affected his speech and swallowing.

Now his treatment option is radiation therapy.

The chance of treatment providing a benefit to Treecraft has been 10 percent all along.

“This is a very difficult case,” said Holbrook. “With some cancers, a person gradually fades away. Tongue cancer is more symptomatic.”

Careful planning

Never a large man, Treecraft now weighs a wispy 125 pounds.

“Dan is getting to the point where it’s painful to swallow,” Holbrook said.

In an e-mail sent at 4:53 a.m. June 25, Treecraft wrote about the pain: “My tongue felt like it had been burned … like a sunburn. I thought about getting up & taking some pain pills. Realized, suddenly, something was leaking out the corner of my mouth, onto the pillow. Yikes! Mouthful of blood. Hard to relax when that’s happening.”

“These bleeding episodes rattle me. … This one has me spooked a bit. Makes me think my relatively slow glide into the ground might turn into a sudden nose dive, with no ability to pull out of it.”

A night later things had not improved.

“The cursed bleeding continues to harass me,” he wrote before sharing details of his suicide plan. “Yesterday’s peregrinations included a stop at an industrial compressed-gas supplier, to try to get started on the task of assembling a satisfactory ‘asphyxiation set-up’ (not a term found in the Yellow Pages index).”

He knows that talking of his suicide will be controversial. It only strengthens his resolve.

Two weeks ago he bought 20 cubic feet of nitrogen gas compressed into a metal cylinder about the size of a 2-liter pop bottle.

He tucked the cylinder under the seat of his scooter to bring it home.

“It’s a big day,” he said of his purchase.

Despite his careful planning – even including a videographer to record the death to protect Jan and others – authorities will be required by law to investigate Treecraft’s death, said Spokane County Medical Examiner Dr. John Howard. It will likely include an autopsy.

“I really wish he wouldn’t do it,” Howard said.

‘My time has passed’

By all accounts, Treecraft is driven, stubborn, unpredictable and passionate.

A fixture of Spokane’s left wing for years, he has criticized Spokane police at City Council meetings, written letters to the editor, and talks to anyone who listens about the dangers of big oil, big medicine and the threat posed to democracy by an apathetic public.

Friend Jim Schrock said Treecraft, who makes his living as an arborist, is “a great guest for a dinner party. He’ll make sure the conversation is never dull. And that it never stops.”

When he dies, Schrock said, the trees won’t sway with joy.

“He’s a tree trimmer who will try to talk you out of trimming your trees because trees should be left to be trees,” Schrock said.

He was born Daniel Whipple. His father was a Navy officer, bright and arrogant. His mother was a brilliant introvert, a champion debater who graduated from the University of North Carolina when she was just 18.

After his parents divorced when he was 8 years old, he moved with his mother to Seattle, where she met his future stepfather, Bob.

They lived together on Queen Anne Hill until one day a phone call changed everything: Bob’s estranged wife had been killed in a car accident. The three left their Seattle house and set up a new home with Bob’s children, who had been left without their mother.

Dan learned to adapt from being a 12-year-old only child to a member of a large family.

“One of the better things that have happened to me,” he said.

After high school he joined the Coast Guard, which included duty on an Antarctica icebreaker.

In 1971 he was busted for smoking pot on a South Florida beach and spent a day in the Broward County Jail. It was an experience that began shaping the young man and further challenged his politics, which had previously veered hard to the right. His views had been influenced by his father, whom Treecraft described as a John Birch Society member who celebrated the assassination of John F. Kennedy by purchasing the same sort of Italian rifle used by Lee Harvey Oswald.

To this day Treecraft believes everyone should be required to spend 24 hours in jail before they are allowed to vote.

“It would be a lesson in power. About who has it and how it’s abused,” he said.

Treecraft – who said his father eventually became disillusioned with the right wing – began embracing leftist politics after 1980 and has since dedicated much of his time and energy to protesting wars and conservative politicians, and supporting causes that challenge power.

He decided to change his name years ago to better reflect his work as an arborist.

He chose Dandelion Treecraft.

The name worked on Jan; the two met when Treecraft was working for one of her neighbors.

They married Sept. 22, 2001, at the home of Spokane artist Harold Balazs. The bride had written this poem:

Tree man up above

swings nimbly from limbs aloft

(why don’t you) come down

And see me (sometime)

His wife sees through the “grumpy leftist” moniker bestowed upon Treecraft at his party last month. She held him when friend Debbie Jackman sang their beloved “September Song.”

Though Treecraft is an atheist and self-described “doomer,” he speaks warmly of spirituality and hope. Contemplating his death for hours a day, week after week, has helped him put life in perspective, he said.

“My time has passed. And that’s OK with me,” he said. “Death is a natural part of life. … I am not afraid.”

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