By Caitlin Kelly
Maybe you’ve been following this recent firestorm?
The one in which Salon, a popular American website, called The New York Times’ former executive editor Bill Keller, and his wife, Gilbey’s gin heiress Emma Gilbey, despicable?
Both of them wrote about cancer patient Lisa Adams, who has advanced breast cancer.
Lisa Bonchek Adams is a mother of three living with Stage 4 breast cancer. She blogs and tweets about what she is undergoing and the decisions she is making about her health; she does so frequently and to a large audience that’s rooting for her. And to a prominent husband-wife pair of journalists, she’s somehow offensive.
Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the New York Times, published an Op-Ed in that paper today indicating that Adams, in spite of the image of positivity and strength she generally broadcasts on her social media platforms, is dying and doing so in a manner somehow undignified; Keller draws a comparison between Adams and his late father-in-law. “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.”
That “trench warfare” has, for Adams, included a variety of medical studies; Keller indicates that Adams’ personal decisions about her health, and her expressing herself online, somehow detracts from people who choose not to undergo experimental treatments or who choose to slip under with less of what is traditionally known as “fighting.” He even finds a Stanford associate dean who is willing to say that Adams “shouldn’t be unduly praised. Equal praise is due to those who accept an inevitable fate with grace and courage.”
Here’s an analysis piece from NPR’s blog:
the piece enraged a lot of Times readers, according to public editor Margaret Sullivan, that she heard a great deal of negative feedback, and who herself said “there are issues here of tone and sensitivity.”
Boy … you can say that again. By closing the piece with a piece about a dean who “cringes” at Adams’ alleged embrace of a “combat metaphor” (unsupported by any quotes from her own writing) and salutes those who show grace and courage, Keller implicitly suggests that to handle your disease as Adams has is one way to go. The other way to go is with grace and courage. And that’s very unfortunate.
Adams herself says that Keller, along with his wife Emma Gilbey Keller, who also wrote a controversial column critiquing Adams’ handling of her cancer (that was in The Guardian and has since ), have misrepresented the basic facts of her medical status, and Keller has already admitted he got the number of kids she has wrong. These disputes have been pretty thoroughly inventoried in a . And writers at outlets including and have been sharply critical of the need to explain to a cancer patient how to handle (and discuss) having cancer.
This is an issue I’ve thought a lot about — how much to write or blog about one’s illness or surgery or medical issues — and how much to never share beyond one’s circle of intimates. People, in my view, who are the ones who are most likely to have actually visited you and your family in the hospital or come with you to the chemo suite, perhaps.
One woman I know, barely, professionally, shared a lot of detail on Facebook about the effects of chemo as she was treated (so far, successfully) for breast cancer. But there was a lot I wish she had simply kept to herself.
She got a lot of emotional support, which I understand — why she craved it and why people offered it.
My mother had a radical mastectomy in 2003. She is alive. She has survived multiple cancers, including thyroid and a meningioma, a form of brain tumor.
In other words, I already live in daily fear of my genetic heritage and have little appetite to read anything about cancer.
That is not a judgment of people who do, but the effect of knowing too much firsthand already.
I get my medical tests and keep a careful eye on my own body and that of my husband.
I’ve already stared down plenty of doctors and Xrays and seen too much and heard too much. I saw my mothers’ very large brain tumor on the Xray and had to give informed consent for her; here’s the piece I wrote about it for Chatelaine, Canada’s largest women’s magazine.
Who am I to complain when I, too, have written these sorts of stories? They can, I know, be helpful to others and provide comfort to the ill and to their families.
A friend my age died of cancer in January 2006 and several men in my apartment building are currently fighting cancer.
It’s not that I don’t care about people who are ill. It’s the reverse. Instead, I find myself worrying about people I do not even know.
For me, that’s not the best choice.
I have really mixed feelings about this sort of thing — none of which suggests I’m right.
How do you feel about someone sharing a lot of very graphic detail on-line about their illness?