In the war against cancer, there are many engagements both frightening and painful. But when those you hope to be on your side attack you, the “friendly fire” can be the most devastating of all.
Such is the case with Lisa Bonchek Adams, a woman in New York suffering from Stage 4 cancer who has been using social media to discuss her personal fight against the disease. While Ms. Adams has written that she does not like the use of war-related phrases in describing cancer treatments, I have personally found the analogy to be fitting.
As anyone who has suffered from or knows someone who has cancer, the battle is fraught with multiple doctor visits, diagnostic scans, lab work, and, often, painful treatments that poison one’s body in an attempt to poison the cancer cells. Many of the treatments are improving, thanks to research. But most still leave a patient exhausted and quite ill.
Ms. Adams’s tweets are now being attacked in the mainstream media by none other than former Executive Editor of the New York Times and current columnist, Bill Keller. Mr. Keller became aware of this cancer patient via his wife, Emma Keller, who writes for The Guardian in the UK. Now, Emma Keller is a cancer survivor herself. Her column about this cancer patient in the U.S. was pulled down after it was determined that Emma Keller had interviewed Ms. Adams by e-mail, without informing her that the quotes might be used in a public forum. Any journalist should know better.
But now Bill Keller has joined in the discussion, essentially telling the public that enough already, why doesn’t this Stage 4 cancer victim just stop all these treatments she is undergoing at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center? Why doesn’t she just give up, making some reference to the cost of extending her life? He seemed surprised in his editorial piece that Ms. Adams’ doctors would not reveal some of the expenses incurred by the treatments. Excuse me? Patient privacy?
After all, Mr. Keller argues in his column—and now we get to the heart of his argument—his father-in-law bravely gave up the fight and died with dignity.
So when it comes to cancer treatment, one size fits all? And when it comes to those who are deciding to fight further, even to the point of taking experimental treatments to aid in the cause of research to help others, that is no less dignified?
Mr. Keller did not seem to take into account circumstances. His father-in-law was 79 when he passed away. Does he realize that Ms. Adams is a much-younger mom with three children, one of whom was born with congenital abnormalities to his heart, spine, and hands? (You can read her blog at http://lisabadams.com/ )
Even worse, Mr. Keller implies that doctors in the U.S. are only beginning to understand that a person should be kept pain-free as they pass through the portal to eternity. Where have you been, Mr. Keller, in your knowledge of cancer fighting? My own daughter, who died of cancer ten years ago, stopped the treatments that her body could not tolerate anymore and was kept pain free until the end.
Mr. Keller was informed by a cancer research center that only 3% of adult cancer patients who are eligible for clinical trials accept this daunting mission. He seemed surprised. Was he pleased?
One would think so by this excerpt:
“In October 2012, I wrote about my father-in-law’s death from cancer in a British hospital. There, more routinely than in the United States, patients are offered the option of being unplugged from everything except pain killers and allowed to slip peacefully from life. His death seemed to me a humane and honorable alternative to the frantic medical trench warfare that often makes an expensive misery of death in America.
Among doctors here, there is a growing appreciation of palliative care that favors the quality of the remaining life rather than endless ‘heroic measures’ that may or may not prolong life but assure the final days are clamorous, tense and painful. (And they often leave survivors bankrupt) What Britain and other countries know, and my country is learning, is that every cancer need not be Verdun, a war of attrition waged regardless of the cost or the casualties. It seemed to me, and still does, that there is something enviable about going gently. One intriguing lung cancer study even suggests that patients given early palliative care instead of the most aggressive chemotherapy not only have a better quality of life, they actually live a bit longer.”
I have to wonder if Emma Keller (Bill Keller’s wife) recovered from breast cancer as the result of someone else risking a new drug that later saved Emma? I am only speculating, of course.
Let me share a story. On a recent flight, I sat next to a chiropractor whose mother had taken the trial drug Herceptin when she had advanced breast cancer some twenty years ago. Now his mother is alive and well, thanks to that experimental drug that is now regularly given to breast cancer patients. I know that chiropractor’s family was grateful that she had continued the fight.
These are not easy decisions for any cancer patient. The unknown stares at you as you contemplate your next step. Do I continue taking these new drugs? Or do I stop?
One of my friends has a son with a brain tumor. Several years later, after trying one new chemotherapy after another, the tumor that threatened to shorten his young adult life long ago, has been kept at bay long enough to give him many treasured moments with his family.
My daughter, who has been deceased these ten years, once wrote in her diary about the importance of “moments,” long before she knew her life would end at the age of 24:
“There is beauty in each moment. There is the hand of God in each one. It may not always be obvious, but to a trained eye, it is visible. Look to the One Who gave me my moments and you, your moments, and everyone one of them will become as valuable as pure gold. After all, it will only be a matter of moments before this life is through and others are experiencing their moments. Then, I won’t have to worry about moments. It will be one long, glorious, eternal moment spent in the love of God.”
Apparently, Mr. Keller likes to play God in deciding the numbers of moments on earth that are important.
If you’d like to follow Lisa Bonchek Adams,’ tweets here is her Twitter handle:
You can read the column by Bill Keller here.
Maureen Foster says
I find this article extremely disturbing, not the least because Mr. Keller feels it is his job to determine when a given patient should discontinue treatment. This unenviable job actually falls to the patient, the family, and the doctor. My sister was diagnosed with Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer. She chose to fight, and endured 6 1/2 years of continual treatment. She took whatever was offered to her, standard or clinical trial, whether it left her with no hair, numb hands and feet, nausea, or other side effects. In those 6 1/2 years she happily watched her son graduate from West Point, two other sons graduate from high school, and the wedding of her only daughter. Was her fight worth it? It absolutely was, in her eyes and in the eyes of her family, and that is what counts.
I could not have said it better, Maureen. Those are moments that her family will hold dear forever because she was able to BE there. Thank you for sharing. ((HUGS))
Very beautifully written, Elaine! It’s inspiring so see someone so eloquently standing up for someone attacked by a bully. Ms. Adams certainly has enough to deal with as it is. Mr. Keller should stick to writing about topics he knows, rather than making pitiful attempts to give moral advice.
Agreed, Lynetta. I still cannot fathom the gall it took to write such a column. Two thumbs down for Mr. Keller.
Lisa Lickel says
I was just thinking last week how much we’ve changed in this country in the past generation – we used to have to fight to be allowed to die; now we have to fight to live.
Sadly so, Lisa, and it is frightening. Even hospice protocol has to be monitored so it does not stoop to euthanasia. Thanks so much for stopping by.