I recently came across a disturbing article written by Bill Keller of the New York Times, about a 44 year old breast cancer survivor named Lisa Adams, who “…has spent the last seven years in a fierce and very public cage fight with death.” . (Read it here.) One might assume from the title “Heroic Measures”, that this piece of journalism pays tribute to the fighting spirit of Lisa Adams, but in thinking so, one would be wrong. What Keller actually does in this controversial article is challenge Lisa Adams’ right to fight.
Keller seems to believe that there are two ways for a human being to die. On one side of the fence are people like his father-in-law, who, rather than take aggressive treatments for cancer, was “…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.” On the other side of the fence are people like Lisa Adams who choose “…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.)” While Keller does not come out and blatantly state that there is a right way and a wrong way to die from cancer, his choice of words certainly send that message! In case there is any doubt as to which side of the fence Keller is on, these words will surely banish them: “It seemed to me, and still does, that there is something enviable about going gently.”
So if it came right down to it, which side of the fence would you be on? Being a three year survivor of stage 3 breast cancer, which yields just over a 50% five year survival rate, I have had plenty of opportunity to ponder that question. For me, it’s a no-brainer. I would choose to fight like a girl! While Keller seems to take offence to the “combat metaphor”, I can think of no better comparison. Having endured three surgeries resulting in the loss of my left breast; four months of chemo therapy; and 25 radiation treatments, I can honestly say that I did not “journey” with cancer, I battled that bastard, and I continue to do so on a daily basis with drugs and significant lifestyle changes. That is MY choice and I do not judge any person who chooses to refuse treatments, to decline follow up medication due to side effects, or to alter their lifestyle in any way after a cancer diagnosis. That is THEIR choice. So why should Lisa Adams or anyone else be judged for exercising their right to fight? One thing I know for sure, nobody gets out of this world alive. When my time comes, I hope to go gently in the night and experience the grace of a peaceful death…..but death won’t get ME without a fight!