Cancer fight a campaign landmark
IN HER SHOES: Survivors back couple's decision to continue
March 23, 2007
[W]hen Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards announced in a news conference Thursday that his wife, Elizabeth, had experienced a recurrence of breast cancer and it was now "incurable,'' the news set off debates all over the country. [..] After acknowledging Elizabeth's diagnosis, John Edwards said that not only would he continue to run for president, he didn't plan on missing a single campaign event.
The reaction was immediate. [..] Internet bloggers and commentators basically accused Edwards of using his wife's illness for a political boost. Others simply thought it was his duty to give up his goals in solidarity with his wife.
"You have to look out for other people in this life,'' Guy Smith, a Chronicle reader from Alameda, told me. "If I were in his shoes, I would abandon the campaign and spend time with the woman I love.''
That was a lovely thought with all the right intentions. But according to the cancer survivors, counselors and therapists I spoke to, it has just one problem -- it is dead wrong.
"What he is doing is absolutely the most positive thing for his wife,'' said Matthew Loscalzo, director of Patient and Family Support at the Rebecca and John Moores University of San Diego Cancer Center, who has studied the relationships of men whose spouses have cancer. "If he quit, what is he going to do after he asks her every 20 minutes, 'How are you feeling, darling?' "
But surely, critics said, Edwards would be better served if he devoted his time to helping Elizabeth. People who have never spoken to Edwards or his wife had no problem telling them that he owed it to Elizabeth to focus on her. After all, they said, it was the right thing to do.
Cancer survivor Mary Lievore admitted she "got a little peeved'' at all the talk-show conversation. Lievore has metastatic, stage 4 cancer, just like Elizabeth Edwards. In the 11 years since she has been undergoing treatment, she has learned something that the Edwardses are just now finding out: When you have cancer, it gives nearly everyone else a license to offer advice.
"Oh, yeah,'' she says. "People come out of the woodwork to tell you what you should do.''
But while others can tell us they think they know how Elizabeth Edwards is feeling, Lievore has cancer in her bones. Before you get too preachy, listen to what she had to say.
"I don't know of any more devastating news in life than that there is no more hope of a cure,'' she said. "But at the same time, life goes on. You can't just sit in a corner and drop dead.''
Barbara Frey of Piedmont missed the Edwardses' news conference. She was undergoing chemotherapy for her own stage 4 cancer, and she is now in her third year of chemo. She thinks Edwards is absolutely making the right decision.
"It is crazy to think of dropping out now,'' she said. "It is crazy for the public to look at her as a nearly dead woman who needs tea and sympathy. What she really needs to do is go on with her life. And that ought to include the things that bring you joy. Clearly, being on the campaign trail brought her joy.''
The irony was that some political insiders knocked Edwards for using his wife as a political "prop.'' Those who have been through cancer say they found it more significant that he was standing next to her.
"I don't know what the percentages are, but there are plenty of men who leave women with breast cancer,'' said Connie Holmes, a therapist who leads support groups for women with metastatic cancer in El Cerrito. "It's just too much for them to deal with, and they are frightened by it."
"Men,'' says Loscalzo, "are driven to fix things. If there is something that makes them feel powerless and helpless, they give up and shut down.''
And then there is the nasty little secret that those who experience cancer understand. All that advice, all those suggestions and questions? There's a reason people feel so strongly.
"The reason they are beating up on this guy,'' says Loscalzo, "is that they are saying 'Oh, my God, she's dying right now.' And they are thinking, 'Go away, get out of the public eye, because you are making me uncomfortable.' ''
And that's the final analysis. [..] More than 10 million people are battling cancer in this country today. [..] The Edwardses [stood] on the national stage [..] announcing that they have decided to continue with their lives, regardless. Some might see that as cynical or self-absorbed. That's your call.
But I can tell you what someone who deals with stage 4 cancer every single day thinks.
"I think,'' said Frey, who will need chemotherapy for the rest of her life, "it is tremendously courageous of them.''
Who are you to disagree?