Storyteller Spotlight: Andrea Ankerholz

Coloradan Andrea Ankerholz overcame obstacles to accessing aid in dying with support from Compassion & Choices’ End-of-Life Consultation Program. 

Andrea Ankerholz of Silverthorne, Colorado, had been living cancer free since undergoing a double mastectomy in 2016. She learned in May 2020 that her cancer had returned. Two months later, scans and further testing revealed that it was metastatic cancer — Andrea was dying. Her oncologist gave her six to 12 months to live, possibly a little longer with treatment. “I wish I had decades left to live. To see my children and grandchildren grow. To celebrate more anniversaries with my loving husband, Jesse. But I absolutely did not want to endure the painful side effects of chemo,” says Andrea, whose friend died the year before due to complications of chemotherapy. Andrea feared that any treatment plan would cause her to feel sicker, but Jesse insisted she try something. “I tried radiation and treatments to induce menopause. It was awful. The pain that the oncologist promised would be alleviated through treatment only escalated. There was no respite.” It became clear to Andrea and Jesse that extending the time she had left was not worth the suffering brought on by treatment. She was reminded of the story of Brittany Maynard, who had moved from California to Oregon to access medical aid in dying. “I never imagined six years after seeing her video that I would be weighing the option for myself,” says Andrea, who was raised Catholic and struggled at first with the idea of pursuing aid in dying. “Was this suicide? No. Cancer is killing me. My God does not want me to suffer needlessly. He would not force me to endure such pain when a peaceful option exists.”  Though she knew medical aid in dying meant she could die at home surrounded by loved ones, the decision was difficult for Andrea: “I really had to weigh my values and the impact on my family. There were lots of nights of crying and deep conversations with my husband, then with my kids. But with their support and understanding, I felt free to ask my doctor for an aid-in-dying prescription.” The process grew tricky from there. Andrea’s oncologist was reluctant to approve her for medical aid in dying right away, even though she was already enrolled in hospice. “He wanted to wait a few months to see if I looked sicker before signing off on the prescription,” she recalls. “I shouldn’t have to look a certain way. I have cancer in my bones. You can’t see my pain. It’s especially frustrating when your own doctor, who can look at the data and see that you’re dying, still wants you to look the part.” Andrea’s consulting doctor then became her prescribing physician, and neither doctor made it clear why they were making such changes. A month later, in January 2021, both doctors suddenly opted to not prescribe aid-in-dying medication for Andrea. Overwhelmed by fear and frustration, she contacted Compassion & Choices’ End-of-Life Consultation Program. “They asked me questions about my situation, my health, and then provided a list of healthcare facilities in my state that may have doctors who would prescribe to me under Colorado’s aid-in-dying law,” Andrea says. After calling three healthcare facilities, she spoke with a doctor at Denver Health who was “absolutely appalled” by how she was treated by her previous doctors and assured her she met the criteria for accessing the law. “It was a completely different experience,” Andrea recalls. “This doctor wasn’t going to hold my prescription hostage until I proved myself again and again, and only until she knew I was just days from dying. The law requires someone to have a prognosis of six months or less, not just a week away. This doctor didn’t make me feel like I was an inconvenience to her or that what I was asking for was unrealistic. She told me as soon as we finished the second and final appointment that I was free to pick up my medication from the pharmacy or wait to fill it when I was ready. I was in charge.” “I’m so thankful for Compassion & Choices’ end-of-life consultants,” says Andrea. “The person who helped me treated me with the utmost respect and compassion. I felt like a priority throughout. It’s been humbling to work with people who care so much, especially during such a rough part of life. When I’m ready, I can toast my life with a strawberry margarita and when the sun goes down, fall asleep in my husband’s arms. I won’t have to die in a hospital. I won’t have to lose control in my last days and endure doctors making decisions that I would not make for myself.”