Christy O'Donnell, 46, is dying of lung cancer and is fighting for right-to-die legislation in California

By Nicole Weisensee Egan
Updated May 09, 2017 11:03 AM
Credit: Austin Hargrave

On Tuesday, former LAPD sergeant and Los Angeles attorney Christy O’Donnell went to her doctor’s office for chemotherapy, as she has every three weeks for the last several months.

The first few times she went were “excruciating,” says O’Donnell, 46, who has terminal lung cancer that has spread to her brain.

“I got violently nauseous,” she tells PEOPLE in an exclusive new interview. “I could barely eat or barely walk. The nausea was 10 times worse than anything with morning sickness.”

And, because the veins in her arms had started to collapse from all the poking around, she’d get a “baseball-sized” lump and be in “excruciating pain” for the four to five hours of the treatment.

“I’ve done all this to try to live,” says O’Donnell, who lives in Valencia, California, with her daughter, Bailey Donorovich, 20.

“For anyone to say I have not tried to live would be a very uninformed opinion,” she says.

While chemo has become somewhat easier to bear since she had a port put in last month, the treatments still take a toll on her.

And once they stop working, she’ll be out of options. So last month, inspired by the late Brittany Maynard, O’Donnell reached out to Compassion & Choices and PEOPLE to share her story.

“Compassion & Choices is honored to have Christy O’Donnell as a volunteer advocate,” spokesman Sean Crowley tells PEOPLE. “Her powerful personal story perfectly illustrates why dying adults everywhere should have this end-of-life option in case their suffering becomes unbearable.”

On Tuesday, Compassion & Choices announced that 15 states, plus Washington, D.C., have introduced right-to-die legislation since Nov. 19, when the group released Maynard’s call to action on what would have been her 30th birthday.

California opponents are already gearing up for the fight. Hearings on the California bill will begin March 25. O’Donnell will testify.

“There is a deadly mix if you combine our broken, profit-driven health care system with legalized assisted suicide, which would instantly become the cheapest treatment,” Marilyn Golden, a spokeswoman for Californians Against Assisted Suicide, a coalition of a number of groups opposing the California legislation, tells PEOPLE.

“Do we think insurers will do the right thing or the cheap thing?” she asks.

NYU bioethicist Art Caplan says O’Donnell and her daughter are powerful new voices for the right-to-die cause, much as Maynard was.

“I think people like this and others yet to come are going to have a very big impact in accelerating the momentum push that Brittany Maynard began,” he tells PEOPLE.

“These are people who are not elderly, not severely impaired, but folks you can identify with,” he says.

Donorovich supports her mom.

“I support her like she’s supported me through everything,” says Donorovich, a college sophomore who works full time at a local pet store. “She feels really strongly, and so do I. I don’t think she should have to go through what she’s having to go through.”

While O’Donnell would like to have the option of legally ending her own life, until then she intends to keep fighting.

Her next set of tests, on March 23, will determine if her tumors have grown; she’s hoping for the best.

“I’ve got plenty of reasons to live,” she says.

For more on Christy O’Donnell, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday