Jul 232017 27 Responses

No, He Probably Won’t Beat Cancer

Last week, Senator John McCain made the announcement that he had Glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer. While some on social media took the moment to carelessly attack the Senator, most broke from the partisan divide and sent encouraging messages to and about this American war hero.

I deeply appreciate moments like these when we push aside differences and celebrate our shared humanity. It’s good to remember that while we disagree, we are on the same side. However, there was one aspect of all the positive tweets which I found disturbing. Many framed McCain’s diagnosis as a battle he would win. “Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against,” President Obama said. “Cancer picked on the wrong guy,” Vice President Pence wrote.

They are encouraging, well-intended words. But there’s only one problem. People generally don’t survive glioblastoma. Through the years, I’ve had several friends, church members, and even a family member have glioblastoma. The circumstances differed in each situation, but they all share one thing in common–I did the funeral for each person. Some cancers can be cured. Some can’t. Except for rare cases, glioblastoma currently falls in the latter category. Maybe one day it won’t, but it presently does.

John McCain isn’t going to beat this cancer. He might have a productive treatment. He may live longer than most. But unless something else takes him, he will likely die from the cancer he has been diagnosed with.

So why the denial?

Why do we struggle to admit what we all know to be true? Why do we feel better framing cancer as a fight to be won even when we know the patient’s outcome has little to do with their effort?

False Hope Is Not Hope

When my father-in-law was diagnosed with glioblastoma, he sought a few opinions. Everyone was in agreement. No treatment would be given. The disease was well-progressed, aggressive, and he had a greater desire to have a quality of life than a quantity of days.  The day he was to be released from the hospital, an oncologist was doing her rounds. She entered to room and painted a far brighter picture than any previous doctor. My wife and I were confused. We remained silent but followed the doctor out of the room to follow up. I told her what the other doctors had said and quizzed her as to why she gave a different outcome.

“I just can’t leave someone without hope,” she said. The doctor’s words were fascinating, “I just can’t.” As though her words and diagnosis were about her. She spoke to my father-in-law, not in a way best for him, but in a way that made her feel most comfortable. She gave a false sense of hope in order to make herself feel better.

Her actions are a common pattern for us when it comes to illness. Instead of doing what is best for the patient or family, we do what is best for us:

  • “He’ll beat this, I know it.”
  • “You have nothing to worry about, I’m sure of it.”
  • “God told me, she’ll be fine.”

These aren’t words of hope; they are words of denial. These aren’t actions of encouragement; they are statements of distraction. When a person uses these statements, they are often showing their inability to deal with pain, suffering, uncertainty, and doubt. They are avoiding uncomfortable conversations by pretending like everything is okay.

While that might be good for us, it’s not necessarily what’s best for the patient or their family. This isn’t to say they have to be hammered with the worst. “You’re going to die,” is only appropriate in specific situations and with the softest of approaches. We don’t have to say the worst, but we should refrain from lying to people just because the truth makes us uncomfortable.

John McCain is a fighter, but his diagnosis is not a new battle. His cancer isn’t a fight. It’s a diagnosis which he will have to learn to live with. It’s a disease which his doctors will treat and hopefully can keep at bay to give McCain as much quality of life as possible.

It’s possible to tell McCain that we love him, without lying to him. We can encourage him without giving false hope. We can offer our support while recognizing the reality of his disease.


27 Responses to No, He Probably Won’t Beat Cancer

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