Liz’s Cancer and the Edwards Campaign (Updated)

Twenty-three years ago this week, my mother died of a liver cancer that had been eating away at her for more than a decade. She was diagnosed relatively early but treatment modalities were primitive and not terribly effective in cases like hers. Liver cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and bone cancer were, in those days, little less than death sentences.

At the time there were new, experimental treatments cancer specialists were trying to work the kinks out of. When she realized that she was considered terminal, my mother insisted on volunteering for them. My father went along with her, and signed her into the Deaconess Hospital in Boston, which was associated with Sloan-Kettering and the best hospital in New England for cancer research and treatment.

For the next 10 years, she was in and out of the Deaconess undergoing a series of treatments, primarily chemo and radiation therapy. The cancer would go into remission, come back, go away again. She would have a few healthy months, and then it would reappear, sapping her strength. Once it went into remission for almost three years. That was a good time. The doctors said if it stayed away for 5 years, there was a good chance my mom had beaten it for good. We thought – we hoped – she had.

But she hadn’t, of course. A year after that long remission ended, she was dead.

A little over four years ago, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was an early catch but I didn’t know what that meant. I thought I was walking around dead.

I went into the hospital at noon and was in the “recovery room” – a glorified corridor lined with gurneys – by 2pm. I wanted to leave but the nurses wouldn’t let me. They insisted I rest for at least 2 hrs, and as I was still woozy, I let them have their way. By 4.30pm I was out of the hospital and on my way home. The cancer was gone and it hasn’t returned.

I told you all that so I could tell you this:

The surprise – and occasional expression of disgust – engendered by John Edwards’ announcement that his wife, Liz, has bone cancer but that he is not going to abandon his campaign on that account, is rooted, I think, in the old perception that cancer is an automatic death sentence.

It isn’t any more. Even granting that her condition is incurable, it is, by the Edwards’ own statement, “treatable”.

The recurrence of the cancer presents a setback for the couple, both personally and politically.”

Getting these results was not a good day for us,” John Edwards allowed.

Elizabeth Edwards’ illness and treatment are certain to affect her husband’s campaign schedule and may raise questions about the viability of his campaign, especially among financial donors wondering whether he will be in for the long haul. The first fundraising deadline is fast approaching on March 31.

Edwards has been considered among the top-tier candidates although he trails front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama in public opinion polls. His forceful opposition to the Iraq war — and oft-repeated apology for his 2002 vote for it — as well as his plans on universal health care have improved his standing among the party’s liberal base.

Both Edwardses said the cancer was treatable and that they would stick with their plans to campaign vigorously for the nomination.

There’s no reason not to if the situation is as they say it is. This is not 25 years ago. Thanks to people like my mother who turned themselves into guinea pigs in order to give others a chance to survive, cancer treatment has come a long way. Liz could have many years ahead of her, and most of them won’t be bad, sick years. If they’ve caught it early enough – and it sounds as if they have – treatment modalities exist that will keep it under control with little disruption of their daily lives, even if that daily life includes a presidential campaign. Liz’s schedule will be affected somewhat, but given that the disease is at the low level they’re suggesting, John’s schedule won’t be and abandoning the campaign would be a classic over-reaction.

Which is what y’all should back off of: over-reactions. Chill. Take a Prozac. Things have changed dramatically in the field of cancer treatment in the last 20 – hell, the last 10 years. There may be no reason for this sort of thing at all:

New Hampshire state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro backed Edwards’ 2004 campaign in large part because of his affection for the candidate’s wife, but remains uncommitted for 2008. He said his heart broke for the Edwards family and he was a bit surprised that the campaign will continue.

“To some extent, yes, because she is such an integral part of the campaign,” he said. “I couldn’t envision the campaign without her.”

(emphasis added)

I see no reason for playing coy, and no reason not to take them at their word. I wish Liz a long and happy life, and I hope that’s exactly what she will have. Charges that Edwards is exploiting his wife’s illness or showing callous disregard for her pain are waaaay out of line at this point and for the foreseeable future, and refusing to support him because of it is counterproductive.

Let’s not go that way.

Update: From John’s MySpace blog:

Elizabeth and I have been married for nearly 30 years and we will be in this every step of the way together. We will keep a positive attitude and always look for the silver lining—that’s what we do.

Although the cancer is no longer curable, it is treatable, and many patients in similar circumstances have lived full, normal lives. We expect nothing less for Elizabeth. She expects to do all the things next week that she did last week.

Like I said, this ain’t 20 years ago.

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