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“When I first went to the radiologist,” says Phil Drucker, “he told me, ‘Other than the cancer, you’re a really healthy guy.’ I’ve been a vegetarian, haven’t smoked since I was 22, and hardly ever drink. I kept thinking, ‘This just isn’t possible.’”

Drucker, 60 and a La Quinta resident for the past eight years, was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. The eldest of three, his parents were children of immigrant parents.

“My mom’s biggest impression on me was not what she said, but rather what she did,” says Drucker. “When I was in elementary school, there was a teacher’s strike. Most people backed the teachers, but my mom didn’t. She put on her miniskirt and go-go boots, and wrote a sign: ‘I pay my taxes. Why aren’t my kids in school?’ She taught me that when you think you’re right, all you need is an army of one.

“My dad was very old-school European. He worked for the Department of Water and Power for 38 years, a union guy. He was a complex person, a deep thinker who kept to himself and didn’t talk much. The main thing I remember is that our house was full of books. He loved books—never threw one away.

“My parents hadn’t gone to college, so it’s kind of funny that when I got a scholarship to college, my dad said, ‘This college thing is really great, but did you ever consider going into the Air Force for 10 years and retiring with a pension and then going to college?’ I figured if I didn’t do (college) then, I never would.”

Drucker did take the scholarship and went to Cal State Northridge for a year. He later attended Santa Monica City College for a year before going to UCLA for a degree in fine arts.

“Music had been in my family,” Drucker says. “My sister played piano, and my brother took up the saxophone. I learned the clarinet in junior high school, because my parents didn’t want to pay for a new instrument, and my dad had an old one he had played.”

At age 16, Drucker took up the guitar and later played in various bands. “It was in the 1980s,” he recalls, “in the post-punk scene. Through my 20s, I got paid for playing, and got to tour to Europe twice along with all over the U.S. and Canada.

“When I stopped playing music, I knew I needed a ‘real job.’ I had worked in a letterpress company while I was in school, and went back into that world. I kept finding myself as the person who was the liaison to lawyers, handling things like contracts and copyrights. A lawyer I worked with once said to me, ‘Do you know the difference between what you do and what I do? About $150,000 a year!’”

At age 34, Drucker decided to go back to school. At that time, entry into law school at the University of La Verne required a personal interview in addition to taking the Law School Admissions Test. “When I met for the interview, the admissions director said he’d been doing his job for 20 years and had never had someone come in with a degree in fine arts. But he said he found me interesting, so I got admitted.

“Because of my undergrad degree, I knew about music, painting, graphics, copyrights—and it interested me how the law around those things had materialized over the years. I hadn’t thought about the fact that copyright and patents are covered in the Constitution, and that it’s actually a limitation on First Amendment rights.”

Drucker graduated law school at 36, and at 40, he passed the bar on his first try.

“It’s kind of funny,” he says, “that my brother also became a lawyer. He’s in PI (personal injury), and I’m in IP (intellectual property).” In addition to his practice, Drucker became an expert on constitutional law, including teaching and public speaking.

What should people know?

“First, if you’re ever stopped by the police, be nice. They have a gun, and you don’t,” he says. “Second, don’t mess with immigration agents at the airport. They can throw you into a dark room for up to 72 hours.

“The Constitution doesn’t really grant you rights; a piece of paper can’t give you rights. What makes us unique is we are the only nation conceived on the concept of ‘natural rights,’ born with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The piece of paper lays out what the government CAN’T do, and is only as good as those using it.”

After a life of eating healthy and working out regularly, Drucker last year was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer.

“I had never been in a hospital before. I even still have my tonsils,” he says. “I didn’t go to the doctor routinely, but my stomach was bothering me, so I went in and had a blood test. The doctor called me the next day and said I had to come back immediately. I had another blood test, and it turned out my hemoglobin level was way lower than it should have been. The doc said I shouldn’t even have driven myself over. He said by law, he couldn’t let me leave, and that if I walked out, he’d have to drag me back. I ended up in a wheelchair taken to the hospital, and they said I’d have to stay at least 48 hours. They’d have to give me blood to try to get my count to an acceptable level.

“It finally dawned on me to ask, ‘I don’t have cancer, do I?’” he says. “It turned out I did, but it hadn’t metastasized. The doctor said in six more months, that wouldn’t have been the case.

“I had surgery and they found five nodes infected, so I had to have chemotherapy—pills at first, and then infusions—and I had 28 radiation treatments. It feels like they take you to the brink of death’s doorstep, and then your body kicks in, and they encourage it to heal. It was really scary. I got depressed and felt so fatigued, but I kept up my teaching schedule through that semester.

“The infusions are done in a large room with lots of other people, and I realized one day, looking at everybody, all hooked up to the same machines, that it didn’t matter who we were—we all wanted the same thing: to get better. That’s what binds me to all other cancer survivors for the rest of my life. It confirmed what I’ve always believed: We are all one.

“Most people take their dog to the vet more than they routinely go to the doctor. It’s a mistake. The fact that I ate vegan and worked out was probably the only reason they were able to get the cancer in time. They tell you to think positively, but you think, ‘If this could happen to me, what else can happen?’ You experience vulnerability, helplessness, a sense of futility. I never thought about giving up, although there were very dark days.

“I’ve gotten into mindfulness, living in the moment. I know life isn’t about the past or the future; we can’t change them anyway. They tell you to decide if you want to share your experience, and I’m willing to help anybody going through what I did.

“Whatever is going on in life, you have to find the gems in the mud. That’s what keeps me going.”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

There are people you see often and think you know: the tennis pro at the club, the barber you see every couple of weeks, the market clerk who remembers your name, the co-worker you chat with at the coffee machine.

In my case, there’s the woman who engineers my radio show: I see her every Sunday. We share laughs and stories, and I sincerely appreciate everything she does to make my time on the air run smoothly.

I realized I didn’t know her at all the day she came in with her head shaved.

“Wow,” I said. “What a change! Did you decide to do that because summer’s coming?”

“No,” she said, wiping her hand over her newly hairless head. “Mischelle has cancer and is going to have chemo, and she’s worried about losing her hair. I wanted to show her how I’m right there with her.”

Marisol Valle is a board operator and on-air personality at Alpha Media, but she is so much more. Born in Indio 37 years ago, Marisol is the oldest of two; she has a brother, David. However, her mother is the oldest of nine daughters, so she has cousins and family everywhere around the Coachella Valley.

“I could never get away with anything,” she laughs.

Marisol graduated from Palm Springs High School in 1997. She went on to take classes at the California State University, San Bernardino, and then attended the Academy of Radio and Television Broadcasting.

“I’d love to have my own talk show on the radio, specifically taking on subjects that affect women and the LGBT community,” she says.

Was it difficult coming out to her parents? “My dad says he knew all along. My mom was angry at first, but that was because I hadn’t told her. They’re fine with me. It’s just not an issue. I was always a tomboy, but I dated boys and found them attractive. I guess I would describe myself as bisexual rather than lesbian, but I just don’t like labels.

“In my 20s, I had a better idea of who I was, and when I met Mischelle, I knew she was someone special.”

At the time, Marisol was working at Desert Arc in their social recreation department, shepherding Arc participants to events like the Special Olympics. “I was moved to the behavior-modification department as an instructor, doing vocational training, and subsequently became supervisor of that area. It was there that I met Mischelle. She was one of my staff.”

Marisol and Mischelle Avalos have now been together for 10 years, the last three of them married. “We were married under the Marilyn Monroe statue when it was in downtown Palm Springs,” she laughs. “Now that it’s coming back to Palm Springs, we’ll be able to celebrate our anniversary there every year!”

In addition to her job at the radio station, Marisol today works as a special education assistant at Shadow Hills High School, tutoring in math.

“I realize math is difficult for everyone,” she says. “I understand math, but I never really liked it. I now know how important it is in every aspect of your life, and I try to pass that along to all the students. You need to know math, even if it’s only so you can help your own kids with their homework. Besides, you never really know when you’re going to need to use algebra: It’s about problem-solving, and you want people to be critical thinkers in the world.”

Marisol would like to go back and complete her undergraduate degree: “As I get closer to 40, I realize the best way to motivate my students to complete their education is by doing it myself. I like being a positive role model for the kids, but I really need to do it for myself.”

Mischelle was diagnosed with cancer in May.

“She’s had five rounds of chemo so far,” says Marisol. “The sixth round will be the last, and so far, the results are looking good. The main thing is that she’s still working (at a Palm Springs animal shelter), and she has received so much love and support and words of inspiration from everyone.”

Have they thought about having a family of their own?

“I like children … at least other people’s children,” Marisol says with a hearty laugh. “When we first got together, we talked about it, but it’s a big responsibility. Maybe we’ll adopt. There are so many kids out there who need a loving family, and exposure to the diversity a nontraditional family can bring. Maybe we’ll decide to be foster parents. It’s so important the difference you can make being part of a child’s life.”

Currently living in Desert Hot Springs, Marisol and Mischelle are great examples of people in your life whom you may not really know—but who are making an impact on the world while following their own path.

As Marisol says, “I’m looking forward to the next chapter on the journey.”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

The call comes on your cell when you least expect it. The doctor, a specialist from out of town, says: “The telephone isn’t the ideal way to deliver test results, but ...”

You urge him to proceed. He tells you about your brain cancer.

It has metastasized with a vengeance. His words are both shocking and anticipated. You know you are hearing your own death sentence.

You have fought valiantly for years to be rid of this disease. You’ve endured the onslaught of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Your loved ones rallied in support. You’ve done everything you can to continue living fully. Now, you find yourself at a new stage, with six months to live. You’re aware that people who die with your disease may face distressing events before the end: seizures, loss of functions, dementia, anguish and undeniable pain.

What are the options in this hypothetical?

In California, you could choose ever-more-aggressive interventions in the unlikely hope of a cure. You could green-light a medical trial and perhaps extend your life, while aiding science. You could choose palliative care and hospice, in the unassailable theory they may provide you a gentler exit. You could even exercise your right to refuse food and drink, a difficult path that leads to death in seven to 10 days.

Or you could move to Oregon. There, you would have an extra option: You could choose to end your own life, at the time and in the place of your choosing, with legally prescribed, fast-acting barbiturates provided by a doctor.

As of right now, this final option is illegal in California. In fact, your loved ones could face criminal prosecution if they helped you do so here.

But all this may be changing.

On Jan. 21, state Sen. Lois Wolk announced legislation that would bring an “end-of-life choices” law to California. The law would be fundamentally like Oregon’s 1997 Death With Dignity Act—requiring an adult patient to have residency in the state, and two doctors in agreement that he or she has less than six months to live, as well as full mental competency. Other safeguards Wolk referred to as “crucial”—for both patients and physicians—will also be folded in.

“It’s time,” she said. “No one should have to go through horrific pain and prolonged suffering when the end is clear.”

A longtime advocate for more compassionate end-of-life scenarios, Wolk authored a groundbreaking 2008 law that provides seriously ill patients with a new mechanism—Physicians Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment, or POLST—to ensure that their wishes are honored regarding end-of-life care. But Wolk, the state senate’s new majority whip, will likely face a tough battle this time. The right-to-die subject has been exceedingly controversial when it has come up in California’s past.

So why introduce it now? Because of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old East Bay newlywed who, after being diagnosed with late-stage brain cancer (glioblastoma multiforme) last spring, became the face of a movement when she chose to relocate with her husband to Oregon so as to end her life under that state’s Death With Dignity Act.

“Doctors prescribed full brain radiation,” she wrote in an essay for CNN. “The hair on my scalp would have been singed off. My scalp would be left covered with first-degree burns. … My family and I reached a heartbreaking conclusion: There is no treatment that would save my life, and the recommended treatments would have destroyed the time I had left.”

Young, attractive and articulate, Maynard’s passionate defense of her right to leave life on her own terms went viral. Her YouTube video drew 13 million views. Her saga was written up in hundreds of newspapers and appeared on the cover of People magazine. Maynard partnered with the nation’s premier “aid in dying” nonprofit, the Denver-based Compassion and Choices, and triggered an outpouring of new energy and funds to its cause.

Ultimately, the sympathy generated by Maynard’s story pushed the “death with dignity” movement forward in ways the country is just starting to see play out.

A month after Maynard’s November death, the already substantial public support for “death with dignity” took a significant bounce. A Harris Poll found that 74 percent of American adults now believe terminally ill patients in great pain should have the right to bring their lives to a close. Even “physician-assisted suicide”—a term controversial in right-to-die circles—now has a 72-percent favorable rating.

“I think (Brittany Maynard) deserves a lot of credit for being willing to be so public about her dying,” said Wolk, who said the young woman’s story was “very much” part of why she and co-author state Sen. Bill Monning chose to the introduce legislation, Senate Bill 128, now instead of later.

“People were very moved by her story,” said Wolk. “It struck a chord.

“To be forced to set up residency outside California to relieve your self from suffering? That’s not right.”


'THINGS CAN REALLY GO WRONG'

With her short brown hair, eloquent eyes and gracious smile, Jennifer Glass (right) welcomed me into her San Mateo home, ushered me to a seat in front of a cozy fire by the Christmas tree, and handed over a cup of steaming coffee.

The warm environs seemed to alleviate the difficulty in speaking openly about the topic at hand: Glass’ late-stage lung cancer and statistically probable decline, and death, from the disease.

A formidable communications professional during her working career—with stints at Oracle, Intuit, Sony and Facebook—Glass married the man of her dreams, Harlan Seymour, in August 2012. They settled into family life. Four months later, while giving her a back rub, Seymour found a lump on her neck that felt “like little peas in a row.”

Glass was soon discovered to have Stage IIIB lung cancer (not smoking-related) that had metastasized to the lymph nodes in her neck. At the time of her diagnosis, the American Cancer Society estimated the likelihood of her five-year survival rate at just 5 percent. The then-49-year-old underwent radiation and two aggressive rounds of chemotherapy, causing her to lose her thick brown hair.

Her cancer is, thankfully, now in a period of “treated containment.” She takes the oral chemotherapy drug Tarceva daily that allows “two to three good hours” per day, she says. The efficacy of Tarceva tends to be two to four years before cancer mutates around it.

Glass, who developed a following for her YouTube video “A Photo a Day: One Year With Cancer” and for blogging about her disease on The Huffington Post, has strong beliefs about how she wants to go when her time comes.

“I believe I should have the legal choice to end my life calmly, peacefully and with dignity,” she said.

Like Maynard, the tech-savvy Glass wants to bring the right-to-die debate to a generation that’s become accustomed to making its own choices when it comes to certain issues. “It’s like what we’ve seen with gay marriage,” she said referring to the sea change in public opinion and policy on that issue in a short time span. “There’s a greater desire for personal choice ... and quality of life. And that has to include end of life.”

When first diagnosed, Glass contacted Compassion and Choices—which was largely responsible for creating and passing Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act. She sought advice and counsel. A volunteer came to her home and explained advance-care directives, POLST forms, the role of hospice, and what was and wasn’t legal in California when it comes to the end of life. Glass, who had been an advocate on the right-to-die issue even before her diagnosis, was thankful to have that information going into the physical and emotional fight of her life.

After her marathon cancer treatment was completed, Glass contacted Compassion and Choices a second time and asked how she could help their effort to make aid in dying legal in California.

She is unapologetic when explaining why hospice and palliative care alone are not sufficient to calm her fears.

“There is some exceptionally fine hospice care,” she said, “but it’s a spectrum. Sometimes it’s simply not possible to eliminate or manage a dying person’s pain.”

People like Glass don’t much like the word suicide—as in “physician-assisted suicide”—imprinted over the right-to-die option. Suicidal people are sad or depressed and want to die, she said. “I’m doing everything I can to live! But I want control over my death if it’s going to go in a really ugly way.”

She and others suggest “aid in dying” or “death with dignity” as alternative word choices to “physician-assisted suicide.”

Glass admitted to a kind of black market that exists in states where physician-assisted dying is illegal. “Since becoming part of the cancer community, I’ve known people who are doing whatever they think it’s going to take to end their lives when they want to, including hoarding pills. That can be dangerous if it's not managed.

“It’s the fear, the fear about how this is going to end.”

In her own case, Glass is frightened by the possibility she may be forced to “drown in my own lung fluid in front of my family in my final days. … My quality of life in whatever time I have left would be vastly improved if I knew (a legally prescribed lethal drug) was an option for me under the law.

“If my life is not tolerable, if I’m racked with pain, if I can’t control my functions, if my system is failing … and I have no recourse? That’s the worst thing I can think of—because things can go really wrong.”

If her disease runs its course, Glass says she knows what it would take to move to Oregon and, like Maynard, take the steps necessary to be approved for self-administration of a lethal prescription.

“But I really hope it doesn’t come to a decision where I have to leave my home,” she said. “Particularly because if it comes to that, it’s a decision I’m going to have to make when I’m already very sick.”


'WE’RE DETERMINED TO DO IT'

Toni Broaddus entered a café near the Capitol in Sacramento, primed for her first in a long string of meetings scheduled that day with legislators, staffers and local officials. It was Nov. 19, 2014—the date would have marked Brittany Maynard’s 30th birthday.

“Brittany’s story really galvanized the movement,” said Broaddus, an attorney and social-justice advocate who now directs Compassion and Choices campaign in California. “Her story has really moved us forward in ways we never could have predicted or expected. We have seen a huge increase in supporters, in donors, in volunteers.”

Broaddus, previously a leader in the state’s marriage-equality movement, said Compassion and Choices has set a goal of having California join the five other states in the country—Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico—that have legalized aid in dying. The group plans to assist in the passage of California legislation or mount a grassroots effort to get the matter put before voters in 2016.

Such efforts have failed in the past. Attempts to legalize assisted dying in California have been beaten back many times over, thanks to fierce opposition from organizations like the Catholic Church, with its moral authority, and the California Medical Association, with its well-financed lobby. In 1992, the statewide ballot measure Proposition 161 went down, getting just 46 percent of the vote.

The most recent legislative attempt before SB 128, Assembly Bill 374 by Assemblywoman Patty Berg, was taken off the table for lack of support at the end of the 2007 session. Famously, the bill had preachers speaking out in opposition from the pulpits in California. Then-Assembly speaker Fabian Nunez actually described getting a call from his church-going mother at that time, urging him to reconsider his support for the bill.

The powerful California Medical Association is predicted to oppose again this time, though a spokesperson said the group hadn’t yet taken a position on new legislation. The organization, which officially represents just 30 percent of the state’s physicians, has claimed before that assisting in a death is in conflict with a doctor’s ethical responsibility to “do no harm.” Also, the doctors’ group holds that most pain at the end of life can be controlled through medication and comfort care in a hospice environment.

However, a recent poll of 17,000 American doctors by Medscape found that, for the first time, a majority of physicians support “death with dignity” for those with “incurable and terminal” disease.

Also expected to oppose Wolk’s legislation are some in the disability-rights community, who say such a law could open up the potential for abuse by insurers or family members. Patients might be pushed to an early death for the convenience of others, they say. In response to the groundswell of media on Maynard’s story, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund senior policy analyst Marilyn Golden wrote: “For every case such as (hers), there are hundreds—or thousands—more people who could be significantly harmed if assisted suicide is legal.”

Broaddus disagrees, based on 17 years of data from California’s neighbor to the north. “People talk about concerns about abuse for vulnerable populations,” she said. “But the reality is, that hasn’t happened in Oregon.”

For her, California’s lack of a law simply doesn’t make sense. “It’s hard to understand given the support in the state and the state’s usual leading role on this kind of social-justice issue.”

For Assemblywoman Wolk, the fate of the bill will depend, in part, on individual legislators’ own personal experiences with death and dying.

“More and more people have had a personal, intense experience with dying—either a relative or a friend … and they want it to be different, they know it should be different,” she said.

The legislator pointed out that the Oregon law “is broadly accepted and not that heavily used,” with about 60 percent of the people who obtain a prescription ever actually taking it.

“It’s a comfort for people to know that if it got really bad, it’s there,” she said. “That seems to make people feel better. Just having it is enough.”


'YOU’RE SCARED AND STRESSED'

Barbara and Doug Wilson met in 1967 while residents in the first co-ed dorms at UC Davis. They fell in love, married, launched careers and raised two daughters, never once leaving the safe haven provided them by the city of Davis.

In 2004, Doug, age 57, was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. At first—thanks to two rounds of surgery and chemotherapy—his disease went into remission. But in 2007, the cancer returned. With Barbara constantly at his side, he spent the next five-plus years in and out of infusion rooms, clinics, radiation centers and hospitals, undertaking every treatment and intervention doctors recommended to help save his life.

“He was amazing,” said Barbara of her husband. “He had the most positive attitude. He did not want to die.”

In the spring of 2013, the couple chose to enter hospice care, more than anything because it would get them access to equipment—like a battery-operated oxygen tank—that would help Wilson attend his daughter’s April wedding in Santa Cruz. “Doug walked my daughter down the aisle,” said Barbara, choking back tears. On morphine for pain, he gave his father-of-the-bride speech and, she said, “did the father-daughter dance.”

By the following Friday, he was gone.

Barbara, now 66, looks back with some unease on her husband’s death process those last five days of his life. “The image of a wonderful, peaceful end of life with loved ones around … well, that didn’t seem to happen,” she said.

Home hospice provided qualified people checking in once a day, she said, and availability in emergencies. But basically, she felt left to her own resources, in the company of her two daughters and son-in-law, without experience or knowledge in how to attend to a dying loved one.

“I think it’d be the same with any hospice,” she said. “You’re scared and stressed because this is your loved one. You don’t know what to do.”

She described her husband as on-again, off-again agitated—he was bleeding internally, with his liver shutting down. “We felt we were incapable of dealing with him properly,” she said. She described frustration at her inability to help make him comfortable. She feared his pain and what would happen if she gave him too much—or too little—morphine.

Eventually, in a hospital bed in the living room with his family surrounding him, her husband took his last breath. But the day-by-day countdown to Wilson’s end remains a fairly traumatic memory.

The Wilson’s story illuminates the reality that the actual process of dying can take time and be upsetting, confusing and painful for both patient and caregivers.

Though Barbara believes her husband would not have chosen to take his own life at the end even if it had been legal, she now believes that people should have a right to that option.

“Until you walk in those shoes, you just don’t know. … When it’s my time, I do not want to suffer,” she said, “especially after watching Doug.”


‘WHY IS IT SO HARD?’

Why is it so very difficult for modern society—with its medical aptitude, technological advantages and ability to fulfill desires—to succeed at delivering a “good death” when it is something most everybody wants?

In his recent best seller Being Mortal, Atul Gawande takes a stab at an answer by laying out the limits of medicine and the inadequacies of medical school in preparing physicians to help patients deal with the stark reality of death.

Doctors have been trained to find cures and “to win,” he writes. This simple fact—along with an American health-care system that seems to encourage excessive treatment—continues to make a peaceful death an elusive goal for many people.

For example: Though most people want to pass away at home surrounded by loved ones, 70 percent die in a hospital, nursing home or long-term-care facility after a long struggle with advanced or incurable disease.

Marge Ginsburg, executive director of the Sacramento-based Center for Healthcare Decisions, and a noted advocate for better end-of-life outcomes, has spent the last two decades pushing for more compassion for patients as they near death.

“You’d think 20 years later, we’d have gotten this solved,” she said. “But no, we haven’t.”

Ginsburg, whose nonprofit organization won’t be taking a position on the new Death With Dignity legislation, reminds that California’s end-of-life problem is much larger in scope than the debate over one potential last-resort option. The importance of advance-care directives and the ongoing push for family members, physicians and patients to have candid conversations before crisis hits can not be overstated, she said.

“The ICU is not the time to start finding out what your family members want,” she said.

Still, some see a shift occurring in the end-of-life landscape—perhaps because members of an aging baby-boomer population have begun to see their final acts in sight. Indeed, more doctors are now being trained in palliative care, which focuses on pain relief over cures for terminally ill patients. Also, there’s an increased use of advance-care directives and POLST forms as well as an uptick in the number of individuals dying in hospice care.

Meanwhile, over to the side, is the more controversial subject of a California law that would allow people who meet its dire criteria to self-administer lethal prescription drugs.

Could a shift be occurring there, too?

Wolk believes the answer is yes.

“It’s changing,” she said. “We have to learn. Doctors have to learn. At the end of life, there is a range of things that can happen. We haven’t wanted to think about that. We haven’t wanted to talk about that. But it’s time.”

Those who followed Brittany Maynard’s story this past year—with its tragedy, awareness and resolve—might tend to agree with Wolk that things have to change.

Like Maynard, Jennifer Glass seems utterly brave and self-aware as she moves forward and, despite her disease, attempts to live a full life regardless of the harsh lesson mortality threatens to teach her.

“I feel fine now. But any minute, things could go a different way,” she said. “My great hope is that, in the next 12 to 24 months, if my disease runs its course, then I will have the legal option to procure prescribed medicine and end my life, by my own choice, by my own hand, legally, in my own home.”

And then, as if preparing for an upcoming debate, Glass posed a question to an imagined opponent of a California end-of-life choices law: “Nobody’s saying you have to do this if you don’t want to do it. But who are you to say that I can’t?”

This story originally appeared in the Sacramento News & Review. Below: Brittany Maynard on her wedding day in September 2012, before her January 2014 diagnosis. PHOTO BY TARA ARROWOOD

Published in Local Issues

When Andrea “Andi” Spirtos was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1993, she did not have health insurance, and had to figure out how to come up with at least $700 per month for treatment.

“I sold everything I could think of to sell,” she said. “I’d literally fast so I could save enough money for my chemo.”

Spirtos’ story is all too common—and that’s why the Desert Cancer Foundation exists. The nonprofit was founded in 1994 by Cory Teichner, Arthur Teichner and Dr. Sebastian George, and since then has helped many thousands of cancer patients who are uninsured, underinsured or otherwise lacking funds to pay for their care. Today, cancer-survivor Spirtos is in a much better place; in fact, she works for the Desert Cancer Foundation as its director of donor development.

October is going to be a busy month for Spirtos and the rest of the folks involved with the Desert Cancer Foundation, because it's National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The foundation, with some help from the Miramonte Resort and Spa, is kicking off the month a little early: From 5 to 8 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 26, the Miramonte will launch “Think Pink,” a month-long series of events and specials, during which some of the proceeds will be donated to the Desert Cancer Foundation.

The launch party will include a fountain commemoration, live music and specialty pink cocktails. Through October, the Vineyard Lounge will offer those special pink drinks, and each Thursday, Gina Carey will perform, and donate $5 of each CD she sells. The WELL Spa will offer special “Think Pink” treatments, and the Miramonte will accept donations for the foundation at the front desk.

Of course, the Desert Cancer Foundation has more big plans for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

On Saturday, Oct. 12, El Paseo in Palm Desert will be the site of one of the Desert Cancer Foundation’s biggest events: Paint El Paseo Pink. Through Oct. 5, individuals and teams can register online to participate for about $25 per person; on-site registration begins at 8:30 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 12, with the walk starting with an opening ceremony at 9:30. The foundation, with the help of the Desert Healthcare District, hopes to raise at least $150,000 at the event, and some El Paseo businesses are getting involved; for example, Spirtos praised Brighton Collectibles for holding a special “Girlfriends Day” from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., during which some of the proceeds will go to Paint El Paseo Pink.

However, raising money is not the only goal of the event.

“We’d like to raise awareness for people to get screenings,” Spirtos said. “Not just women; men can contract breast cancer as well.”

Spirtos said she’s proud of the fact that thanks to the support of local sponsors and the medical community, the Desert Cancer Foundation arranges $7 in services for every dollar donated.

“It’s wonderful to have people coming together to support the foundation,” Spirtos said.

For more information on the Desert Cancer Foundation, or to register for Paint El Paseo Pink, visit desertcancerfoundation.org. For more on the Miramonte Resort and Spa, visit www.miramonteresort.com.

Published in Local Issues

I’m having a bad hair life. Not just a bad hair day … a whole lifetime!

I was born with stringy, straight, thin (and ever-thinning), blonde (well, at least I got something right!) hair. To perm or not to perm? Short or long? Cut or grow? Color, highlight or go natural? Wig or no wig?

Thank God for good hairdressers! And when you go to a salon, doesn’t the hair of the person doing your hair make a difference?

My new role model in life is Cindy Melchor, 53, of La Quinta.

Cindy received a high school equivalency degree at 16. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew I didn’t want to go to school. I had been a model once for a neighbor who was in beauty school, and I thought, ‘Why not?’ It looked like something that would get me out of school.”

She attended beauty college at the age of 17, and has been doing hair ever since.

In July 2011, a small, cancerous lump was detected by mammography in one of Cindy’s breasts.

She had to face a real dilemma: She knew the treatment would rob her of her hair.

“I had had lots of clients over the years who had gone through breast cancer. Most of them had done just fine and recovered. I know people die from it, but that never entered my mind. In fact, when the doctor told me, I initially laughed about the absurdity of it.”

Exactly one year before Cindy’s diagnosis, her sister had also been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Cindy Melchor“She was the first one I told, and she just freaked out. But my clients had changed my perspective. I just thought, ‘OK, it’s breast cancer; it’s nothing. Lots of people have had it and turned out just fine.’

“I didn’t look at it as a death sentence. It was just a bump in the road. The only time I cried at all was when I told my daughter.”

Cindy began treatment, first with a lumpectomy, and then chemotherapy for four months. Radiation treatments followed for a couple of months after that.

“After my first treatment, my hair began to disappear. I lost everything—hair on my head, all over my body, my eyelashes and eyebrows. But none of that bothered me as much as having to wear a wig.”

Cindy was uncomfortable with the physical feeling of a wig, although she adds, “The shaved head didn’t bother me. To see yourself bald is really weird. At least I had a decent head!

“I walked around fine at home and around my family. But I wore the wig whenever I went out—even to get the paper. I just felt as if, out in public, everyone knew. When I see someone in the market, bald or wearing a head scarf, I always think, ‘Cancer.’

“For me, going out bald meant people would identify me by the disease, and that bothered me. That part didn’t bother my sister at all.”

Cindy had no discomfort talking about her condition with her clients. “I told everyone. I’ve never been secretive about it.

“Walking into the shop for the first time with the wig on was actually the hardest part of the whole experience. I never hid anything about what I was going through. My clients and co-workers all went through it with me, and that helped, but it made me the center of attention—and I just hate that.”

How long did she wear the wig, and when did her own hair return?

“To look like me, (it was) about six months after I completed chemo,” says Cindy. “I took the wig off when my hair was still very short and spiky. I look at pictures of me during that time, and it just doesn’t look like me. I actually took the wig off too soon.”

Cindy’s twin granddaughters were born just after she stopped wearing her wig, and she now has a third grandchild. “If money was no object, and I could do anything I want, I can’t imagine wanting to do anything other than spend more time with my daughter and grandchildren.”

Does Cindy have any advice for others who have to go through what she did?

“It’s such a personal thing,” she says. “For me, it was about not being the center of attention. You have to do whatever is comfortable. I realized my own vanity and my desire not to be the center of attention, but in the end, what was most important was that the cancer didn’t define me.”

If there is reincarnation, and we have to keep coming back until we’re perfect, I want to come back with Jennifer Aniston’s or Farrah Fawcett’s hair … or as Cindy Melchor.

Oh, and get regular mammograms—just do it!

Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Since 1985, the American Cancer Society has held Relay for Life fundraising events in thousands of cities across the world.

But as far as local organizers know, there’s never been a Relay for Life quite like the one taking place next Friday and Saturday, Aug. 2 and 3, at the Riviera Palm Springs.

The Relay for Life formula is fairly tried and true: People form teams, gather pledges, and then take turns walking or running around a track (at a high school, for example) for a certain time period—often 24 hours. Spectators and supporters can show up and buy items from the various teams, each of which has a table set up. The proceeds go to the American Cancer Society—and those proceeds can be substantial: Cathedral City’s Relay for Life generally raises around $80,000 per year, and little Yucca Valley’s garners $100,000, said Jennifer Heggie, the local ACS Relay for Life manager.

“They are amazing up there in the high desert,” Heggie said. “They’re super-dedicated to the cause.”

However, Palm Springs’ Relay for Life—the first held within the town’s city limits in a decade or so, Heggie said—won’t follow this successful formula. Instead, this Relay for Life is going to be a dance party.

From 5 p.m. on Friday to 5 p.m. on Saturday, the grand ballroom at the Riviera will be the setting for a 24 Hour Dance Party. For $20, attendees can come and go, all the while enjoying a wide range of entertainment including a swing-dance class, line-dancing, a drag show hosted by the ubiquitous Bella da Ball, and, of course, tons of great music from well-known DJs from Southern California and the Coachella Valley (including friend of the Independent Alex Harrington, aka All Night Shoes).

Heggie said the goal for this year’s Palm Springs Relay for Life is $25,000 (and money can be raised through Aug. 31). On one hand, that’s a modest amount when compared to the fundraising done in other desert cities (such as the aforementioned Relay for Life events in Cathedral City and Yucca Valley). On the other hand, that’s not a bad haul for a brand-new event.

“It’s hard to ask a town that’s starting a new event to raise $80,000,” she explained.

Since this is also a brand-new type of event, Heggie said she’s had problems fitting the 24 Hour Dance Party into the Relay for Life paradigm. For example, all of the standard marketing materials from the ACS have to do with … well, walking or running and tracks and whatnot.

“With this concept, we don’t necessarily have a track; we have a dance floor,” she said. “We kind of slightly leaned away from the team concept to be a little more inclusive.”

Of course, locals can still put together teams and “relay” their dancing throughout the night and day—in fact, Heggie said that arrangement is “ideal” in terms of fundraising. According to the local Relay for Life website, as of this writing, 13 teams with a total of 37 participants have already raised almost $11,000—a number which is sure to rise. Teams will each get a table to decorate and sell non-food items, like glow sticks, beads and boas, to raise extra money. (As for food, that will be available via the Riviera; Over the Rainbow Cupcakes and Desserts has also donated delicious goodies for purchase.)

If the 24 Hour Dance Party is successful—and considering it’s a kick-ass dance party with great entertainment and a moderate cover charge, why shouldn’t it be?—the concept could be picked up by other communities, Heggie said.

But despite the morph from track-relay event to dance-party event, this is still a Relay for Life, and most of the Relay for Life traditions remain intact.

First and foremost, Relay for Life has always been about honoring and celebrating cancer survivors, just as much as the events have been about raising money. Thus, all cancer survivors are invited to attend the event for free, and from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Friday, the event will include a three-course dinner for survivors and a caregiver. (Attendees need to register for the dinner by Thursday, Aug. 1, via the Relay for Life website or by calling the ACS’ Palm Desert Office; the number can be found below. Survivors who want to attend the dance party but not the dinner do not need to preregister.)

“The survivors open the relay,” Heggie said. “They do the first lap … so this means they’ll do the first dance.”

The event will feature a luminaria ceremony, led by singer Kris Searle, to honor loved ones whose lives were taken by cancer. And fans of Sissy Bingo at the Ace Hotel and Swim Club will be happy to know that the legendary Linda Gerard—who is currently in the midst of a heated battle with lung cancer—is scheduled to sing from 8 to 9 p.m. on Friday.

People who can’t attend, of course, are encouraged to donate to the event via the website. Another option to both give and receive: At 6 p.m. on Saturday, July 27 (i.e. the day after this story is posted), Relay for Life will be holding the Little Black Dress and Pearls for a Cause Party at Azul, 369 N. Palm Canyon Drive. Tickets for two people are $100, and that ticket includes a buffet, four hours of open bar (we recommend a cab afterward), a silent auction and tons of entertainment, emceed by Bella da Ball. (Seriously: Does Bella ever take a night off?)

In other words: Everyone has a chance to support a great cause while having a great time doing so. So … go do so!

Relay for Life Palm Springs’ 24 Hour Dance Party takes place from 5 p.m., Friday, Aug. 2, to 5 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 3, at the Riviera Palm Springs, 1600 N. Indian Canyon Drive. Admission is $20; cancer survivors are admitted for free. The event is an alcohol- and tobacco-free event, though cocktails will be available at other parts of the Riviera during alcohol-serving hours. To donate, create a team or receive more information, call 760-568-2691, ext. 3, or visit relayforlife.org/palmspringsca.

If you are a cancer survivor or are currently battling cancer, and need support, services or simply someone to talk to, call 800-227-2345. The line is open 24/7. You can also visit cancer.org for more information.

Published in Features