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Arnie Honkofsky, 75, has survived cancer four times. Now he's an advocate for death with dignity – also known as assisted suicide.
Arnie Honkofsky, 75, has survived cancer four times. Now he's an advocate for death with dignity – also known as assisted suicide. (Cody Boteler / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Arnie Honkofsky graduated from the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy in 1968. Becoming a pharmacist was a natural path for him; his father was one, and Arnie spent several early childhood years living above the drugstore his dad operated on East Fort Avenue in Baltimore.

He remembers watching patients asking his father for advice on different ailments. And, he remembers prescriptions being entered by typewriter since there were no computers in those days.

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After graduating, Honkofsky got a job with Giant Pharmacy, which he compared to “pledging a fraternity” because it had a great salary, benefits and working conditions. After about 20 years, he was fully vested in his retirement and then had an opportunity to move to a hospital pharmacy; a former classmate offered him a position at Good Samaritan Hospital, now a MedStar facility.

In 1988, he got a job as a pharmacy manager with Greater Baltimore Medical Center, and retired from pharmacy work in 2014. He also ran a photography club called “Digidocs” and later served as clinical director for a medical cannabis store in Frederick County.

He and his wife, Marlene, have lived in Owings Mills since 1988. Their first date was a tennis match, Honkofsky said, and she invited him to a party shortly thereafter. They celebrated their 30th anniversary last year and have raised four children together.

If it seems as though the path of his life has been direct and orderly, there are, in fact, some complications — major complications. He has survived leukemia, colon cancer, a kidney tumor and prostate cancer.

In 2006, he was diagnosed with leukemia in 2006. Three years later, Honkofsky felt a “minor discomfort” in his lower right abdomen; his doctor sent him to the emergency room in case it was acute appendicitis.

After some testing, he was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. The disease was also affecting his appendix and his gallbladder. His medical team said major surgery was required, followed by chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

“In the beginning, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through with it,” Honkofsky said. “My oncologist said, ‘Arnie, if you don’t go through with it, you’ll be dead in six months.' So, I said, ‘Well, OK, maybe I’ll change my mind.’”

The health care tribulations were prelude to his passion for volunteering. The retired pharmacist, now 75, has given of his time for at least 12 years for GBMC’s signature annual event, the Legacy Chase at Shawan Downs in Cockeysville. The event, which was held Sept. 28 and included steeplechase horse races and food trucks, benefited oncology services and patient support programs at GBMC.

Honkofsky said his job at the event has evolved a bit. For a time, he was its only volunteer photographer, but now there are several. His duties nowadays include being a professional mingler with patients as part of GBMC’s survivors group, of which he’s a member.

The main point of the day, Honkofsky said, is “to celebrate cancer survivorship.” He considers his life a gift and said, “How we live our life is our gift back to God.”

In general, he said of volunteering, “The biggest part is giving back, when you’re as lucky as I am. Volunteering really is priceless.”

Children were encouraged to attend the Legacy Chase, which celebrated its 19th year, dressed as their favorite superhero to show they are “ready to join the fight against cancer," according to event organizers.

John Lazarou, a spokesman for GBMC, said the fundraiser, which more than 6,000 people attended, garnered about $230,000.

Chris Kruft, a pharmacist at GBMC, worked with Honkofsky for about 30 years. The two have become great friends, and their families have gotten to know each other.

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Kruft described his friend as optimistic, positive, generous and a respected colleague.

“He’s like a bright light,” Kruft said. “He’s always ready to help. He’s a really big part of GBMC, even after hestopped his day-to-day job here.”

Death with Dignity

It was 1984 when Honkofsky watched his mother deteriorate quickly from breast cancer. The illness had metastasized to her lungs. She was in and out of the hospital and because of her cancer, every breath was painful, Honkofsky said.

“Toward the end ... she’d look up at me and say, ‘Arnie, can’t you help me get out of this? I can’t, I can’t take it anymore,'" Honkofsky said.

At the time, he said he couldn’t. It would not have been legal and he wouldn’t have known what to do anyway, he said. That experience with his mother was just the first like it, he said.

“When your quality of life is down to zero, your life is nothing but torture,” Honkofsky said.

Eight states plus the District of Columbia have death with dignity legislation that allows patients to work with their doctors to get medication that will end their life should they choose to do so. In Maryland, lawmakers in the House of Delegates passed a bill that would have legalized medically assisted suicide, but the measure was defeated in the state Senate.

The vote ended in a tie, and its sponsor, Sen. Will Smith, D-Montgomery County, told The Batlimore Sun he would consider similar legislation in the future. A Goucher poll earlier this year found more than 60% of Marylanders supported medical aid in dying.

Honkofsky, who already has testified in favor of the legislation, said he would do so again.

When his time comes, he doesn’t want to be “a vegetable” and he doesn’t want to experience the pain of a prolonged death that he has seen others suffer, he said, adding that he would like to go in his sleep.

“I’m not afraid of dying,” Honkofsky said. “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

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