‘I want to rob cancer of its prize’: N.J. man moves to Calif. to legally end his life

Listen 3:06
Kevin Roster makes a last visit to the Parx Casino in Bensalem before leaving for California, where law allows terminally ill patients to end their lives with medical assistance. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Kevin Roster makes a last visit to the Parx Casino in Bensalem before leaving for California, where law allows terminally ill patients to end their lives with medical assistance. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Kevin Roster wants to end his life on his terms.

He was diagnosed two years ago with a rare form of cancer known as sarcoma. It started in his leg and, despite chemotherapy and weeks of radiation, spread throughout his body.

Yesterday, with doctors saying he has weeks to live, the 36-year-old New Jersey resident boarded a flight to California so he could legally end his own life with medical help.

“For me, it will mean freedom to choose,” he said in an interview the day before his departure. “It will mean that if life is no longer enjoyable, that I can get out before they have to put me in a medical coma or I have to stop eating and drinking. Before I’m simply furniture, which again is against everything I wanted to be.”

Roster was hoping to be among the first patients to be prescribed life-ending medication under a New Jersey law passed earlier this year.

New Jersey was the eighth state to legalize what supporters call “death with dignity” and opponents call physician-assisted suicide. California approved a similar law in 2015.

But the New Jersey measure doesn’t take effect until August, and Roster is running out of time.

He has already had a leg amputated after doctors removed a 20-pound tumor. Now he gets around in an electric wheelchair. Before his condition gets even worse, he wants to get a lethal prescription.

“I want to rob cancer of its prize,” he said. “Like, I already have one leg, and I can still do the best I can to get out. But I’m not willing to rot from the inside out. I’m not willing to gasp for air or asphyxiate on my own blood. Not to be graphic but these are some of the ways you can go.”

Roster was born in Queens, as he says, to an addict and a drunk.

After spending part of his childhood in group homes, he became a professional poker player for a time, opened a collectibles business in Metuchen, Middlesex County, and started a family.

Moving to California will be one of his biggest challenges yet. Not only has he had to switch insurance coverage, arrange housing and find new hospice providers, but he also has had to say goodbye to his wife, from whom he’s separated but on friendly terms, and his 9-year-old son. The boy and his mom live on Staten Island.

“For me to have to leave the vicinity of being able to see them a few times a month at least just seems wrong to me,” he said. “It seems like every American should have the right to decide what’s right for them if they’re in this situation.”

Establishing residency in California under the so-called End of Life Option Act is relatively easy. Roster says he is doing it by signing a lease on an apartment.

But crossing state lines to get life-ending medication is controversial even among doctors who support the law.

Lonny Shavelson, a physician who runs the largest medical practice in California helping people use the law, sends a letter to anyone considering the move urging them to stay put.

“You do not improve the quality of your life by uprooting yourself, your family and your caregivers at a time when you’re already severely ill,” he writes.

“Dying by use of an end-of-life medication is far from the only method to achieve a dignified death,” he adds. “In fact, it’s rarely necessary.”

Such advice has not always been heeded. Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old with terminal brain cancer, made international headlines in 2014 when she moved from California to Oregon to end her life with medication before her home state allowed the practice. Over the years, doctors say, a few other people have quietly made similar decisions.

Roster says he largely agrees with Shavelson, who is not his doctor. He says he wouldn’t recommend his approach to anyone else.

But for him, a man who was not living with family and who has the financial resources to make the move, he says it’s different.

“You’d be both crazy and stupid to do what I’m doing,” he said. “For me, it’s the right decision.”

Plus, he has another reason for making the move out West.

The World Series of Poker is happening in Las Vegas next month. Roster, who remains an avid poker player, hopes to travel there shortly after arriving in California for one last shot at winning a high-stakes tournament.

“I’ll be honest, I play every single game like it’s my last game ever and I’ve actually done probably better than I’ve ever done before in my life during this period,” Roster said.

He has also dedicated himself to raising awareness about sarcoma and wears a T-shirt linking to a blog he has kept about his experience whenever he plays. He also posts videos about his medical journey on YouTube.

Educating others about sarcoma, he says, has helped give him purpose at the end of his life.

He has a vision for his final moments, although some of it might not be possible so far from home.

“I’d like the people I love to be around me,” he said. “That’s what I’d like. I’d like to be able to hold their hand and say a proper goodbye and, you know, just be able to go peacefully and let them know I found peace, because they know I’m not necessarily happy in the life I’m in now.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.