Mike Sloan, London advocate who shared terminal cancer fight with the world, dies at 50

Mike Sloan in September 2019.
Mike Sloan in September 2019. @mikelondoncan via Twitter

Mike Sloan, known by Londoners for his brash, vocal advocacy for the city’s disadvantaged and, in recent months, to Twitter users around the world for his candid, sometimes humorous documentation of his fight against cancer, died Monday at the age of 50.

Sloan, diagnosed in early 2019 with Stage 4 anaplastic thyroid cancer, died at 1:25 p.m. ET through medical assistance, said friend and former London broadcaster Bob Smith, who was with Sloan when he died.

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“I found out about it maybe an hour and a half before the procedure, so I just went down to his place… and we had some good quality time together before it began,” Smith said. “He was perfectly lucid, and he was just tired. He decided it was time.”

After Sloan took in one final smoke on his balcony and a couple of sips from a Molson Dry tallboy, the procedure got underway, Smith said.

Sloan’s final words were of his beloved chunky black cat, Chub.

“He just whispered, he said, ‘Just tell Chub I love him.'”

“He loved that cat,” Smith said. “He was concerned what would happen to Chub when he did pass. Fortunately, his next-door neighbour… said that she would look after him and she’d take him, so that’s where Chub’s going now.”

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While Sloan had decided several months ago to die with the help of medical assistance, Smith said he hadn’t decided when until very recently, “perhaps as late as this morning.”

“I think he was at the point where there were a lot of tubes and machinery and pills to take and injections — it just got too much.”

In early December, Sloan posted to Twitter, his longtime social media platform of choice, that the tumour had begun to prohibit his swallowing. By the end of the month, he said it was starting to get in the way of proper breathing, something that was expected, he said, but was “moving more quickly than I might have liked.”

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“I’ve never died before, so I don’t know what it feels like, but if agonizing pain, difficulty breathing, a fever and inability to sleep are symptoms, I’m getting there,” he tweeted earlier this month.

Smith said Sloan handled his death with “absolute dignity.”

“He was scared,” Smith said. “He didn’t know when he wanted to do it, he didn’t want to have to do it, but he knew he was going to. Even today when I got there, he said, ‘I’m afraid,’ and I said, ‘Who wouldn’t be afraid in this situation?’ But he made the decision and he carried on.

“I was just honoured to have been able to sit there and hold his hand while he passed.”

‘The Sloan Ranger’

For years, Sloan had been known to most London Twitter users as an abrasive force fighting for the city’s poor and homeless, slinging virtual arrows at people he saw as being complicit in perpetuating, or ineffectual in solving, the city’s seemingly never-ending issues around housing, food insecurity, and poverty.

It earned him the nickname, “The Sloan Ranger.”

“He just couldn’t stand what he saw as phonies,” Smith said. “And sometimes he’d go a little bit too far, sometimes a lot too far, with certain people, but it was him reacting in the moment to people he thought were privileged in a way.”

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His social media postings left him with enemies, but Sloan’s criticism came from a place of sincerity, Smith said, as Sloan had a direct, personal connection to the issue.

READ MORE: City’s livable wage has risen by 4.3%, says London Poverty Research Centre

Having moved to London some two decades ago, Sloan had been living for the last several years in co-operative housing in the city’s downtown, relying on $1,350 a month in disability and pension benefits, according to the London Free Press.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, the result of childhood sexual abuse, left him unable to work.

“He was one of society’s downtrodden, if you like, and I think that’s where his anger came from,” Smith said. “But I think… at his heart, at his soul, he was a caring, funny guy. And that never changed.”

This blunt picture of Sloan may be at odds with the Sloan many online have come to know over the last year. It was a change that came gradually.

“Once he got the diagnosis he decided, ‘Here’s an opportunity to do something different,’ and it was an opportunity for him to do some self-reflection,” Smith said, noting Sloan reached out to many people with whom he had clashed on Twitter. Most, he said, accepted his apology.

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“But then he decided, ‘I’m facing this, I’m going to opt for medically-assisted death, and I’m going to talk about it, and I want other people to talk about it.”

An online following

One of his earliest tweets referencing medically-assisted death, dated April 6, 2019, describes a conversation Sloan said he had with his brother, who is a doctor.

“I called him today to talk about surgery and that, well, there is no cure, it’s over,” Sloan wrote. “He asked me 1. Have you considered assisted suicide? and 2. You say rude things on Twitter. LOL, family! Good grief.”

Since his diagnosis, Smith says Sloan became a more vocal proponent of medical assistance in dying, or MAID.

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In a tweet dated Oct. 2, he criticized a London hospice organization for not allowing palliative care patients to choose MAID due to religious reasons.

“It’s a legal procedure that many choose,” Sloan wrote. “There’s no good reason to shut people out.”

READ MORE: Federal government begins public consultations on medically assisted dying

Sloan’s online candour about his diagnosis and MAID, often laced with a sharp, dark sense of humour, garnered him multiple national media interviews and a larger following on Twitter, something he found humbling.

“My Twitter following has tripled in the last month and a half,” he told the CBC’s Day 6 program late last year. “I don’t know what to make of it… I find it almost — I’m almost uncomfortable with it.”

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News of his death prompted an outpouring of grief on social media, with “RIP Mike” shooting to the top of Twitter’s Canada trends list by the early afternoon, something he likely would have been in disbelief about, said friend Craig Needles of 980 CFPL.

“I told him that the way he approached death… something we’ll all have to approach eventually, spoke to people,” Needles posted to Twitter. “He handled his diagnosis with humour, grace and compassion. That meant a lot to people.”

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READ MORE: Justice minister asked to move quickly on assisted death ruling

Smith’s tweet announcing Sloan’s death racked up more than 10,000 responses and more than 2,000 replies from users, among them Rick Mercer, Arlene Dickinson, Tony Clement and Peter Fragiskatos.

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His final tweet, posted just before 7 p.m. ET on Sunday, read simply, “Just stay tuned all……no big deal though.”

“That’s perfect Mike Sloan,” Smith said. “He said he would let people know. I don’t think he said, ‘I’ll tell you explicitly what’s going to happen and when, but I’ll tell ya,’ and that was kind of his way of saying it.”

Asked what Sloan would likely want to be remembered for, Smith said three things: the Youth Opportunities Unlimited fundraising campaign he spearheaded, moving forward the conversation on MAID, and being a guy who tried to be honest, “sometimes painfully so.”

“Thousands and thousands and thousands of Canadians got to know more about medically-assisted death. That’s his legacy,” Smith said. “It’s not something that he may have said in anger five years ago, it’s what he did in the last 12 months of his life.”

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