‘I want to live, not just exist’: Meet the terminally-ill Southsea grandfather campaigning for changes to assisted dying laws

Terminally-ill David Denison knows any changes to assisted dying laws will come too late for him, but he’ll continue to campaign until his very last days.

By Elsa Waterfield
Tuesday, 19th July 2022, 12:18 pm

David has led a very full life but now, at the age of 77, he and his family have made the difficult decision to refuse any treatment options for his terminal illness.

From helping to found volunteer programmes based in Africa to banking and accountancy and flying RAF jets, David has had an exciting life and career.

He was just 18 when he first visited Morocco to travel around Africa with a friend before returning later in the year to begin his RAF jet flying training at the RAF College, Cranwell.

David Denison and his partner, Simon Martin. Picture: Alex Shute

Those early memories of ‘friendly hospitality’ made a lifetime impression on David and encouraged him to set up volunteer programmes later in life, eventually becoming the UK-registered charity, Moroccan Childrens’ Trust.

‘It was fun for everyone, the volunteers came out thinking they were going to change the world but after 12 months, the world had changed them,’ says David.

‘They did go back with a bit of sense and understanding for what life is like for a lot of people in those parts.’

The charity which David helped to found, and of which his eldest son is now a family trustee, was born from the aim to educate women and provide child welfare.

‘For a lot of them [the volunteers], they were surprised at how jolly and good the life is like there. You go out thinking everyone is going to be poor and miserable, but far from it.

‘They’re very happy and surprised to know that suicide is at such a high rate in England,’ adds David.

David’s three sons have followed in their globetrotting father’s footsteps, living far and wide, his youngest in America, his middle in the north of England and his oldest in Germany.

When David retired in 2006, he moved to Southsea, and just one month after he turned 77, he was given between three and six months to live.

‘I’d had a cough for quite a while, then one day Simon my partner said to me “not only have you got a cough, but you've gone a funny yellow colour”.

‘My local GP took one look and said I think you've got pancreatic cancer,’ says David.

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David was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April and was soon receiving advice from Southampton’s leading pancreatic cancer specialists, at Queen Alexandra Hospital.

‘Within a short period of time I was sitting in front of one of the leading experts in the country of pancreatic cancer,’ he says.

‘They were very straightforward, which is important. They said “This is what it is, this is how it works, this is what happens and these are the options” - it wasn't a barrel of laughs at all.’

David was given time to think about his options and to discuss them with his family, who all supported him in his decision to forego any of the treatment options available for his condition.

‘We sat down and spoke about the options. We came to a conclusion that they all supported, particularly my partner Simon, not to go for what was on offer,’ says David.

‘From what we had seen and heard, it wasn't going to cure anything, it was going to extend it and it wasn’t going to extend living, it was going to extend existing – and my life has been made up of living.’

David was determined not to make life harder for himself and his family, and while he accepted the diagnosis, he chose to take back ‘control’ over his final months.

‘I wasn't going to put myself through that, or other people around me. Being on tubes and pipes and being wheeled in and out of chemotherapy.

‘Even the surgeon admitted, as did the publications they give you – and they do give you a lot of information – that 10 per cent of people my age die in the operating theatre.’

Doctors told David that while the proposed rounds of chemotherapy and possible surgeries would prolong his life, they would be unable to remove or cure the cancer.

‘Even if you get through all this at my age, you extend your existence by two more years,’ says David.

‘That’s two years of burden, not just for me, but my family and friends who are asking “How is he? Is he all right? Shall we come and visit?” which is lovely but why burden them with all that?’

Since his decision, David has shown support for Dignity in Dying, which campaigns to change the law on assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults, supporting patient choice at the end-of-life stage.

He believes assisted dying should be legal in the UK, and he is not alone.

On July 4, David’s story was taken to the House of Commons by Portsmouth South MP Stephen Morgan, for the first debate on assisted dying measures in two years.

The debate came after a government petition lodged by Dignity in Dying CEO Sarah Wootton received more than 155,800 signatures.

One avid and vocal supporter was David and he is determined to make a difference to the way assisted dying is handled in the UK, starting with getting people talking.

‘This has been something that has been a taboo for far too long.

‘I'm old enough to remember when cancer itself was thought to be a taboo subject.

‘It's time to talk about dignity and dying.’

David believes there is hope for the next generation, but it is up to him and people like him to help push the cause.

‘My sons and grandchildren, in their early 20s, have all been very supportive, that wouldn’t have happened in my generation,’ he says.

‘Those of us as grandparents, we haven't got much to do but we ought to be role models for our own families and hopefully for others – we should take a stand on things.’

Assisted dying is legal in New Zealand, every Australian state and several states in the US, with bills progressing in the Scottish, Jersey and Isle of Man parliaments and votes in all three expected next year.

‘The idea that “oh well it’s a slippery slope and there will be wicked people wanting to push grandma over the edge,” well they could push her down the stairs if they wanted to but the fact is no case has been reported of that sort of thing,’ says David.

Since being a supporter of the campaign David was reminded when the issue first resonated with him when, two years ago as the pandemic began, he suffered a small hernia, leading to him being in and out of QA Hospital.

‘I was chatting to the ambulance crew and what depressed them was having to go to care homes and hospices week in and week out, picking up often the same patients, and taking them to QA for ongoing treatments,’ says David.

‘A large majority of these elderly patients, were saying “Can’t this just come to an end” – they couldn’t talk to doctors or their family.’

‘These people don’t have a voice, it just isn’t discussed.’

‘There are almost 200 million people in the world who have the protection of the law when times are difficult, in this country it’s still a crime.

‘There are people suffering out there, we need to get on with it. It won’t affect me of course, I will be long gone but I’m thinking of all the others who have to go through this.’