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'Very ready': How an Ontario man celebrated his end of life

Mark Asselin had medical assistance in dying (MAID) on March 22, 2023, after a long battle with cancer

A middle-aged man wearing a colourful suit jacket.
Mark Asselin, 63, shown on the day of his celebration of life on March 18, 2023, in Toronto, decided to seek medical assistance in dying after learning the cancer that had made him endure so much pain was terminal. Jonathan Migneault/CBC

Warning: This article includes a reference to sexual abuse.

Mark Asselin was determined to die happy.

On March 22, 2023, Asselin, entrenched in a years-long battle with cancer, received three drug injections at the Casey House specialty hospital in Toronto.

The first helped calm him down and make him sleepy. The second put him in a coma. The third stopped his breathing.

“I’m very ready,” he said in an interview at the hospital one day before his 63rd birthday and four days before receiving medical assistance in dying, which has been legal in Canada since 2016.

“After 10 months of intense pain, constantly fighting it, this is my chance to just get some sleep. I’m tired. I’m tired of fighting.”

An old building with a sign in front that says Casey House.
The Casey House specialty hospital in Toronto where Asselin spent his final two weeks of life. (Jonathan Migneault/CBC)

Asselin was first diagnosed with skin cancer in 2009. It quickly metastasized. He had a growth removed, but the cancer came back. After multiple surgeries, it eventually spread to his lymph nodes in 2020.

In 2021, the cancer went to his prostate, and last year, it made it to his bowels.

“And it was Stage 4 and there was nothing they could do,” he said.

Asselin said he would have needed three surgeries to remove the tumors around his bowels and bladder. At his weakened state, he was told he probably wouldn’t survive the operation.

A life of challenges

Even before his cancer diagnosis, Asselin had to overcome challenges to his physical and mental health.

He was born in Sudbury, Ont., on March 19, 1960, the fourth of five children.

“Mark was five years older than me, so he was the one I was closest to,” said his brother, Neil Asselin.

“Life was quite chaotic and hectic in our house. My parents were running a business, so Mark was sort of my mentor — I’d say my first mentor.”

A man smoking a cigarette.
Asselin, shown the morning of Wednesday, March 22, before his medically assisted death, was born in Sudbury, Ont., the fourth of five children. (Submitted by Deana Dudley)

Mark said he was sexually abused when he was a teenager, by the person who rented the basement apartment in his parents’ home.

He wrote about the incident, which led to his mental breakdown in his 50s, in his autobiography This Wall.

“I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said.

After high school, he moved to Toronto and studied interior design at Humber College.

He lived at the centre of Toronto’s gay community, and like many of his friends, he was diagnosed with HIV in 1990.

“On my 30th birthday, I got summoned to my doctor’s office at the end of the day, and he broke the news that I was HIV positive and I probably wouldn’t survive a couple of years at best, given that it was in the early stage of HIV diagnosis and there wasn’t much research of medication available.”

Asselin said he survived a lot of hospitalizations, “Fighting because I did not want to become an HIV statistic. And wanted to just live my life and pursue my dreams.”

Church work a priority in his last days

A woman standing inside a church.
Rev. Deana Dudley is pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto. (Submitted by Deana Dudley)

In 2019, Asselin joined the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto and became its facilities manager.

The church started in 1973 and has grown to become “one of the largest and most active churches serving both the queer community, and being the queer community,” according to Rev. Deana Dudley.

“When we first met him, I thought, ‘OK this is a great guy with a lot of good skills,’” Dudley said about Asselin.

“But I very quickly learned he’s also a great guy with a great personality and a huge impact ultimately, both on many of us personally as well as on the church, and on the building.”

We went through a similar thing with my husband’s brother and, you know, when your quality of life is that compromised, and you’re tired and you’re in pain, to be able to say, ‘I’m going to go out on my own terms’ is pretty awesome.

Sherry Gervis, Mark Asselin's sister

Even as he fought his cancer and lived through constant pain, Asselin continued to work at the church until five days before his death.

“I mean, I’ve been able to go to work, which makes me really happy because I absolutely love my job,” he said before his end-of-life celebration.

“But of course, with the cancer and the constant pain comes the exhaustion. So it’s basically, I work through my day, and live on painkillers, morphine, trying to remain functional.”

Asselin described the pain he felt at that time, especially around his midsection, “as if somebody’s ripped the skin off of your arm.”

Medically assisted death numbers rising

Shortly after he received his terminal cancer diagnosis, Asselin said he decided to pursue medical assistance in dying (MAID).

In June 2016, the federal government passed legislation allowing eligible Canadian adults to request MAID.

In 2021, access to the procedure was expanded under Bill C-7, with the removal of the requirement that a person’s natural death must be reasonably foreseeable.

According to Statistics Canada, the number of medically assisted deaths has been growing.

There were 10,029 in 2021, an increase of 34.7 per cent from 7,446 in 2020. MAID accounted for 3.3 per cent of all deaths in Canada in 2021, up from 2.4 per cent the previous year.

Four people standing in a large hall.
Mark Asselin, with his siblings Sherry Gervis, Neil Asselin and Richard Asselin, left to right, during his celebration of life on March 18. (Jonathan Migneault/CBC)

Asselin said that after making his decision to seek assisted dying, he emailed all of his siblings so they would get the news at around the same time.

“I was shocked, but I wasn’t surprised,” said his brother Neil.

“I kind of had a feeling it was coming. I mean, I’ve known about his health issues for a long time. But reading it was pretty impactful. And I didn’t really know how to react.”

Neil wrote back to his brother that he “had his corner,” but still needed some time to digest the news.

Sherry Gervis, Mark’s older sister, said she thought he was brave to make that choice.

“I thoroughly support him,” she said.

“We went through a similar thing with my husband’s brother and, you know, when your quality of life is that compromised, and you’re tired and you’re in pain, to be able to say, ‘I’m going to go out on my own terms’ is pretty awesome.”

A man playing the piano while another man to his right watches.
Mark Asselin's friend, Igor Vrabac, performed an original song for him at the celebration of life. (Jonathan Migneault/CBC)

The end-of-life celebration

On March 18, the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto held a special service in Asselin’s honour.

He wanted the CBC there to share his view with others that the end of a person’s life doesn’t have to be a sad moment, but can instead be a time of joy and celebration.

Asselin slowly made his way to the pulpit, smiling through his pain, to a friend’s rendition of the Pharrell Williams song Happy.

“With that opening song, I can pretty much guess this is not the type of celebration of life you typically attend or are expecting,” Asselin said to a large gathering of his friends, family and the congregation.

“But this is my celebration of life, and I’m happy.”

A drag performer singing in front of a crow.
Drag queen Naomi Leone performed at Mark Asselin's celebration of life party in Toronto. (Jonathan Migneault/CBC)

That evening, Mark hosted a party that featured karaoke, a performance by drag queen Naomi Leone and an original song in his honour, performed on the piano by his friend, Igor Vrabac.

“From my point of view, I’m going to try and remain as upbeat as possible and try and impress my feeling upon others that they should rejoice in my honour,” Mark said, referring to his friends and family members.

“Join me in being happy. I’m happy for them. I’m happy for the time they’ve given me. I’m happy for knowing them.”

Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. ​​If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.

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