Sitting at the computer inside his London Ontario apartment, Mike Sloan looked over with a grin and proclaimed “I’ve always been a smartass.”
Fittingly it was Mike’s dark humour on social media, his wit and openness about dying of terminal cancer, that first brought us together.
On the one-year anniversary of the death that he chose for himself, I am remembering a unique man, and the legacy he has left for all those curious about confronting life’s only certainty: dying. This is the first installment of a multi-day CityNews series that will document his journey with medical assistance in dying.
Our initial interview took place in September 2019 on a sunny park bench in London, Ontario’s Central Park.
Mike spoke with a raspy tone. He explained it was the undeniable sound of cancer closing in around his vocal cords; as if each word he uttered stole away another breath.
He reassured me it didn’t hurt to talk: “I just sound like shit.”
The irony is that Mike Sloan was finally finding his voice. In a few days more than 10,000 strangers would follow his twitter account, to heed the words of a dying man.
He lived modestly on government assistance and endured a “very difficult life.” Mike told me fought like hell for causes that he believed in, such as poverty and food security.
“Mike has a voice that everybody needs to listen to,” his friend and former London City Councillor, Cheryl Miller, told me. “There’s so few people who will look at you and tell you what you don’t want to hear.”
Friend Scott Collyer was with Mike the day he was diagnosed.
“I was with him when he got back to his car,” he said. “And he said, ‘I have thyroid cancer and its not the good kind.’ The fact he’s been able to park that to use this time to do something in such a thoughtful, thought provoking way is fantastic.”
In late summer 2019, Mike’s doctor told him he had six to 10 weeks to live. The anaplastic thyroid cancer he’d been diagnosed with was progressing. He made the personal choice not to move forward with chemotherapy and radiation, he didn’t want to feel the effects of cancer treatment during his final days.
While not close with his immediate family, Mike’s decision to choose medically assisted death, known as MAID, has been a journey for his closest friends.
“He’s sort of unlocked a door that a lot of us are frightened to enter,” says Miller. “I’ve gone through that door with him.”
When we first met we browsed some of his favourite tweets he’d posted about his current predicament. A popular one read “What a relief. It’s not like I’m going to have to buy new snow tires this year.”
In another he wrote: “This is funny to me. The person who will be my cat’s new owner said to me, ‘I’m going to put him on a diet.’ I said, ‘good luck with that.’”
When asked about the importance of finding levity even in death, he paraphrased Joan Rivers, explaining “you have to be able to laugh through the tough experiences.”
After that first park bench interview, Mike asked if I’d be interested in documenting his decision to move forward with a medically assisted death, and the journey that awaited him in his final months.
After taking time to think it over, a colleague and I accepted his very intimate invitation. We interviewed him over the next several months.
We also interviewed people important to Mike, including the doctor assigned to end his life, Dr. John Clifford. Mike had a joke about him too.
“I said after we first met – I get the impression this guy is really into killing me,” he said.
Dr. Clifford said he’d gotten used to Mike’s sense of humour.
“Mike is certainly the youngest person I’ve ever been associated with medical assistance in dying, so that will make it difficult,” said Dr. Clifford. “The alternative is he’s going to die a horrible death. This process enables him to have control and say no I’m going to do it my way and I’m honoured to be a part of it.”
The control of choosing when to die was something Mike admitted he wrestled with.
“Its very odd. Let’s say I said October 10,” he explained. “I’m not fearful, but it would feel odd to think October, 2, 3, 5, 6…”
Still, he hoped to share his journey with others, to help enlighten them about death, and the choice some may have when it comes to dying on their own terms.
“I hope that people don’t just see it as some sort of dramatic ‘oh my god this man’s minutes away from dying’ or something like that,” he said. “I hope they can take into consideration the entire journey.”
In the coming days, CityNews will bring you the rest of Mike’s journey, as we document his decision to his final day. We will also be covering the polarizing pitch to change the legislation around doctor-assisted death in Canada, which has passed through the House of Commons and now sits before the Senate. The proposed amendments could make it easier for Canadians to choose MAID, even if death isn’t imminent.