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Susan Madrak Headshot

The Cancer Scolds Explain It All For You

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I'm not surprised, but I'm still appalled at the number of people who feel compelled to tell Elizabeth and John Edwards what their priorities "should" be. One of the most common scolds is that they have very young children, and so John Edwards should quit running and devote all his attention to his family.

Well, excuse me. I don't see anyone telling Lynn Cheney to quit her job and take care of Dick, what with his serious cardiac conditions. Come to think of it, I don't hear anyone telling Dick to quit his job so he can stay alive long enough to know his daughter Mary's baby.

We have such a strange, conflicted attitude toward death in this country. And when someone is stricken with something like cancer, we (the societal we) rush to the barricades and insist on an all-out fight - well, to the death, which seems to me is only a form of denial. How dare we have rooms in our lives for anything else?

We are a generation of control freaks, convinced we can master anything with enough effort. We can fix it, or we can wish it away. And when you get cancer, people seem to expect that it should become a full-time job.

We forget this is not a binary choice. We are not living or dying; we are living and dying. (As someone once wrote, "Life is a ship we get on, knowing it will sink." The only difference with a terminal illness is, we now have the advantage of seeing land on the horizon.)

So why is it so unthinkable that Elizabeth Edwards has decided to live while she is dying?

And who are these people who have the audacity to demand that her husband's election campaign come to a screeching halt because they're convinced it will somehow be more reassuring to the Edwards children? "Yes, Daddy was running for president but Mommy will probably be dead in a few years, so it's very important that we all stop whatever else we were doing and concentrate Only On That."

Imagine a young child who now has to spend those years waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is what far too many busybodies are now proclaiming as the right, "caring" thing for the Edwards family to do.

Molly Ivins's breast cancer returned twice, and this last time took her. No one would have blamed this enormously talented and charismatic writer if she decided to lay off the keyboard in favor of acting as if she was already dead and buried - but by God, Miss Molly would have scorched the ears off of anyone who dared to suggest she should, and we're all the better for it.

Cancer time lines have averages. Some people have less time than average, some have more. Despite advanced pancreatic cancer and his age, my dad lasted far longer with his than anyone expected. I was grateful for that additional time, but I also knew he was dying. It was not all that taxing to hold those two thoughts at the same time.

I visited my ex-husband the day before he died. He wasn't taking it well; he said he'd done everything the doctors told him to do, including an exhausting stem cell transplant, but he put up with it because they told him he could expect two more years as a result. He'd been in denial almost to the last day of his life, and now he was very, very angry.

Life was funny that way, I said. No one really knows how long they have; I might leave the hospital that night and get hit by a bus, crossing the street on the way to the parking garage. "You can spend whatever time you have left resenting the fact that you don't have more time, or you can just live," I said. "You have a life ahead of you, whether it's a few hours, a few days or a couple of weeks. It's up to you what you want to do with it."

He nodded. The next morning, he died peacefully while they were doing a liver scan.

My point is, I guess, is that whatever Elizabeth Edwards and her husband decide to do with what time she has left is nobody's else's damned business.