Monday, March 26, 2007

March 26, 2007 - Incurable Hope

I've been thinking about the recent news stories about John and Elizabeth Edwards: her cancer and his race for President. She's a breast cancer survivor, who's just learned that her cancer has come back. It's metastasized to the bones. For the first time, the doctors are calling it "incurable."

I feel for the two of them, standing before the TV cameras, the eyes of the nation upon them, and uttering that dread word. It brings to mind, in a small way, my own experience in standing up before the church I serve, and telling them of my own cancer diagnosis. It's such personal information, but, for people who hold positions of public prominence, it's not privileged information. It's got to be shared. I struggled mightily with the questions of when and how to share it. I'm sure they did, too. Finally, they just came right out and said it. What else could they do?

There's been much debate about the other decision the Edwardses have made: that John will stay in the Presidential race. Reactions from the chattering classes have run the gamut from "What courage!" to "What selfishness!" (This, despite the fact that Elizabeth stood right there beside her husband, and declared in no uncertain terms that she supports his decision 100%. She's no slouch, when it comes to speaking for herself.)

I think most of the negative reactions are based on misinformation. The word "incurable," as applied to cancer, doesn't mean what it used to. Not so many years ago, if a doctor told you your cancer was incurable, the next words were likely to be, "I'd advise you to get your affairs in order." These days, a great many incurable cancers can be effectively managed, for a very long time.

Most forms of diabetes are incurable, too – but no pundit would dream of suggesting that a candidate withdraw from a political race if his or her spouse received that diagnosis. "Cancer" is a word that continues to evoke all sorts of irrational fears. Maybe the Elizabeth Edwards story can provide a teaching moment for the general public, in that regard.

Sure, Elizabeth's further medical treatments, whatever they may end up being, will put added strain on her husband. The two of them give every indication of being a close and loving couple. How could cancer not have such an effect? This news is a reminder that politicians are people, too.

In this era of political handlers, image management and "spin," we seem to have forgotten that simple, down-to-earth truth. Lincoln fought depression. FDR used a wheelchair. Churchill was a little too fond of his whiskey. If there had been such people as image consultants when these men entered politics, would their names ever have made it onto a ballot?

In his column in today's New York Times, Bob Herbert writes, "John and Elizabeth Edwards are giving the country a world-class lesson in courage and candor." Indeed.

So, let's lay off John and Elizabeth Edwards. From where I sit, the "courage" label looks to be the best one to apply to them. They've determined, in light of this disheartening news, to keep on doing what they've been doing for some time: living with cancer.

More power to them.

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