The Doc Project

'Time is limited, let's have at it' — one man's decision to die on his terms

In the face of terminal cancer, Ray Perman remains determined to pilot his own life... and death.
Ray Perlman and his daughter in 2012, before chemotherapy. (Submitted by Andrea Witherell)

In 2012, Ray Perman was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. The tumours grew rapidly, and by 2017, he commented that when his body was scanned, it "looked like a Christmas tree." It was inevitable, the cancer would soon take his life. Unless he chose to take it first.

What if you could decide when and where you died and who was with you? Maybe this kind of agency could transform the relationship you have with your own mortality. This kind of control might give your final days a sense of freedom and peace that allows you to see the world in a way you never have. What if it made death a deeply personal and beautiful experience?

These were the questions Ray found himself asking and that's what the documentary, The Captain of My Ship, is about. In the doc, Ray faced down the prospect of his advancing cancer and choosing his own death.

Death is ugly. Death is painful, death is not this flip of a switch that a lot of people think it is.  - Andrea  Witherell  (Ray  Perman's  daughter)

Ray was a resident of Piedmont, California — a state that passed end of life legislation in 2016. At his request, Ray was prescribed a now-legal cocktail of drugs that, if taken, would kill him. He said having the medications with him at home gave him comfort. But whether or not he would go through with it, he wasn't sure.

Ray at band practice, 2012. (Submitted by Andrea Witherell)
Ray found that knowing he could take his life at a time of his own choosing — including choosing to not do so — changed his entire outlook on living. Mundane moments with friends and strangers began to take on new meaning and emotional depth. A simple walk outdoors became magical. His conversations with his children were more cherished than ever.

Andrea Witherell is Ray's daughter. She had been spending more time with him in the months leading up to when this documentary was made, as his body slowly broke down. She supported her father's choice, whatever his decision would ultimately be.

"As a child, you're kind of learning how to take control of your own life, and then as an adult, you're always as close to fully as we can be in control of your life," said Andrea of her father's illness. "It's hard to watch yourself get weaker and less capable of things as you get older and older and have something like cancer." 

So this story is about two relationships; A daughter's relationship with her father and a father's relationship with his own mortality. This story is also part of the ongoing conversation about end-of-life care. When modern medicine says there's nothing more we can do to save you, what's next? Do you 'let nature take its course,' or do you intervene? This is not a simple philosophical or ethical or religious matter. But Ray's story sheds some light on one man's choice around his own death.

One thing we do know is that Ray always had a taste for adventure and discovery.

Doctors said he had a 50/50 chance, but Ray made it to his daughter Andrea’s wedding, 2016. (Submitted by Andrea Witherell)
"I've always been an explorer... backpacker, outdoorsman, rock climber, Eagle Scout advisor, SCUBA (diver), glider pilot, private pilot, mountaineer, lifetime Sierra Club member," said Ray.

The son of a Pan American pilot, he had the opportunity as a young boy to travel all over the world. Some of his fondest childhood memories were of lying on the floor of his father's office, spending hours studying flight maps and aircraft diagrams. It's these early memories that Ray credited with his adventurous spirit.

Perhaps most importantly, at this stage of his life, was how Ray's personal code had always been guided by the laws of the sea. A set of principles he used to navigate his life.

"The laws of the sea are extremely old, and the biggest, most remarkable law is the captain shall exercise every ounce of energy, every ounce of intelligence, every ounce of everything he has in his body, not to lose control of the vessel," said Ray. "To not lose control. That is it. And I feel that way about my own body."

I am the captain of this vessel.- Ray Perman

In this documentary, as Ray reckoned with his mortality, he reminded himself that his adventurous spirit was guiding him still. And that perhaps, that would be enough.

When Ray was asked to be the subject of this documentary, this was his response: "Let me be the explorer that carries the torch into the darkest depth of the cave... Let me bring in the light and report back what I am seeing. This can be my single greatest gift to my fellow man. Time is limited. Let's have at it."

To hear Ray Perman tell his story, listen to the documentary "The Captain of My Ship" by clicking on the "Listen" link above.

Ray Perman took the three drugs he'd been prescribed and died February 4, 2017. He was surrounded by his family.

About the Producers

This documentary was produced by David Swanson, Dominic Girard and Shawn Cole from Pacific Content. It first aired on Relate, an original podcast from Zendesk.​