Elizabeth Bakewicz '07 was forced to let go of her dream of becoming a criminal defense attorney and protecting constitutional rights when she was diagnosed with brain cancer.
She also had dreamed of becoming a politician. After being diagnosed, she continued to be active in local political party activities and became acquainted with her state legislators. In 2014, her personal circumstances presented an opportunity to become an authentic spokesperson in the fight against physician-assisted suicide.
That year, Brittany Maynard, a 29-year old woman in Oregon with terminal brain cancer, made national headlines for ending her own life through a physician prescribed pill. Maynard had publicly announced her plans to end her life and her support of euthanasia. Bakewicz, whose diagnosis closely mirrors Maynard’s, instead chose life and the suffering that came with it.
Bakewicz soon stepped into the national debate about physician-assisted suicide. She lectured at universities and churches, was interviewed for news articles, and became part of the Family Policy Alliance’s “Worth Fighting For” campaign. When an “aid in dying” bill was proposed in the Minnesota Legislature in 2016, Maynard’s widower testified in support of the bill. Bakewicz testified against it.
The bill “tells me I am a burden not worth bearing,” she said. “We become better people when we bear each other’s burdens, not when we bury people because they are burdens.”
The bill was quickly withdrawn, but Bakewicz is sure that physician-assisted suicide advocates will try again.
Doctors recently discovered a new tumor in her head – the sixth in the last 11 years, and the fifth in the past two years. The new tumor affects Bakewicz’s speech and language, making it difficult for her to find the right words or causing her to say the wrong words without realizing it. It also has dulled her short-term memory. Yet, her writing skills remain intact. She continues to share her story about the importance of fighting for life, just as she has throughout her cancer journey.
Her law journey
Bakewicz and her husband, Jonathan Bakewicz ’07 J.D., met during the summer between their first and second years of law school, while participating in the Blackstone Legal Fellowship – an experience aimed at preparing Christian law students for careers marked by integrity, excellence and leadership. Bakewicz joined the St. Thomas community the fall of her third year, and she and Jonathan were married that October.
After graduating in 2007, Bakewicz went on to clerk for Minnesota District Court Judge David Knutson, working at the Hastings courthouse. In the spring of 2008, she started having intense headaches. “Punch headaches,” she called them, because it felt like someone hit her in the head when she stood up. The headaches increased in severity and frequency to the point where Bakewicz’s co-worker would stand beside her to make sure she was safe when the headaches started. Then on May 28, Bakewicz’s pain and blurry vision sent her to the emergency room, where she was told there was a mass on her brain.
Bakewicz’s doctors spent the next year monitoring the tumor through periodic MRI scans. Meanwhile, she and Jonathan welcomed their daughter Lucia in May 2009. That July, a biopsy confirmed that Bakewicz had an inoperable grade 3 anaplastic astrocytoma – malignant brain cancer. Bakewicz recalled her doctors entering the room, all staring at the floor. They told her that she would have three-to-five years to live, at which point Bakewicz set a goal to live until Lucia entered kindergarten. Chemotherapy and radiation followed. She developed seizures. With a baby at home and Jonathan working, their friends, family, neighbors, co-workers and fellow church congregants jumped in to help.
Incredibly, a year later, Bakewicz’s scans indicated no new tumor growth or advancement. The cancer was “on pause.” Bakewicz became someone living with a brain tumor. Still, the headaches, seizures and fatigue continued, and Bakewicz was unable to drive or work.
After Bakewicz fell twice in 2017, she learned that her cancer was no longer “on pause,” so she returned to chemotherapy and radiation, with nausea, exhaustion and uncertainty. She continues to fight and to place her trust in the Lord. She draws strength from Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Bakewicz once said that she wears the Lord’s providence like a doctor wears scrubs.
She jokes, “The great thing about having cancer is that no one gives me grief about being religious.” Her faith motivates others, too. “I have been inspired by Bakewicz’s courage, tenacity and unwavering faith as she has dealt with her cancer diagnosis,” Knutson said. “She has used her medical challenges and her writing and speaking skills to be a powerful and outspoken witness for her faith.”
For Bakewicz, “Suffering is a part of life. It doesn’t mean that we need to end our lives because we are suffering.” In 11 years of pain, Bakewicz and Jonathan also have experienced great joy. They welcomed a daughter and a son. Bakewicz has well surpassed her initial goal of seeing Lucia enter kindergarten. This May, Lucia will turn 10 years old; Judah, 4 years old; and Bakewicz, 39 years old. Bakewicz’s goal now is to see Judah off to kindergarten.
The Bakewiczes recently traveled to Banff, Alberta, Canada, where they cross-country skied in the mountains. Life, love and suffering coexist for them.
“We don’t need to end our lives because we’re suffering,” Bakewicz says, “I would have missed out on so much. And my family would have missed out on my life and the beauty of what we’ve done and how we’ve lived together.”