Yesterday the world learned that Elizabeth Edwards’ cancer has returned. What started in late 2004 as breast cancer and then went into remission, has come back, this time as cancer in the ribcage. The condition is treatable but not curable. Put simply, this means that, barring a miracle or some unforeseen accident or a new medical breakthrough, Elizabeth Edwards will die of cancer. She is terminal though she is not in the terminal stages of this horrible disease.
It happened that Marlene and I were on the road all day yesterday driving from Tupelo to Chicago, which meant we had a lot of time to listen to the radio. I was surprised to hear many people criticizing John Edwards for his decision to stay in the presidential race. We listened to Rush Limbaugh (who refused to criticize the decision) discuss the matter with his callers. As we approached Chicago, a local talk radio program took more calls, most of them critical of the decision on medical, emotional or psychological grounds (bad for her condition, bad for their young children, bad example for the nation, bad for their marriage) or more generally critical of John Edwards for his political views. They just don’t like John Edwards so they don’t like his decision, which seems self-serving and narcissistic (How can he run for the White House when his wife needs him by her side?).
So many angles of this deserve careful exploration. For one thing, cancer is not just one thing. It has a mind of its own, takes its own course, treating one person this way and another person that way. Two friends can contract colon cancer. One lives, the other dies. Most people die quickly from pancreatic cancer, but a tiny few survive. I heard a cancer doctor say recently, “Lung cancer is a tough one.” When I asked him about the current state of cancer research, he took his hand, laid it on the table, and spread his fingers out to show that cancer treatments move in all directions at once. Cancer isn’t just one thing, treatments vary, and no one can say with certainty how someone will respond. Obviously the doctors think they can manage Elizabeth Edwards’ cancer for the time being. That being the case, what else can the Edwards do but keep on going?
Will things change eventually? Yes, because life always changes. With or without cancer, nothing stays the same. Cancer forces us to face that reality sooner rather than later. Years ago I received an email from a man who had just been diagnosed with prostate cancer. In thinking about what he had learned as a result of his diagnosis, he included this sentence, “Cancer clears away the cobwebs, cancer clarifies, cancer makes concise, cancer enables you to find comfort in God and freedom from the world’s entrapments.” Cancer is not your friend. It’s an enemy you fight against as long as you can. But cancer often becomes the avenue by which you gain needed wisdom, deeper faith, and an insight into what matters most.
Several years ago my wife was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. After two surgeries and radiation, she is doing very well and her checkups have been all clear. Even though they caught it very early and it was very tiny, the doctor warned her that it could come back. As we were driving and listening and talking about John and Elizabeth Edwards, Marlene mentioned a friend of ours, an experienced cancer nurse, who told her, “It’s gonna come back. It always does.” I hadn’t heard that before yesterday. Now that’s not a prophecy, just a comment from a nurse who has seen what breast cancer can do. And she is a very good friend and loves us. I baptized her in the Jordan River in January.
So we talked a bit. Suppose Marlene’s cancer does come back. Would I stop doing Keep Believing Ministries? No, probably not. Not at first. Depending on the circumstances and the prognosis, we would do what John and Elizabeth Edwards are doing. Sometimes you have no choice, but if you have a choice, you stay in the race as long as you can. You’ll know when the time comes to drop out.
And make no mistake. We all drop out of the race sooner or later. As George Bernard Shaw remarked, the statistics on death are impressive. One out of one people die. That’s true for me and Marlene and for John and Elizabeth Edwards. We all have an appointment with death.
Dean Barnett has cystic fibrosis. Writing from that perspective, he offers some very moving thoughts on John and Elizabeth Edwards
. This is part of his conclusion:
Through the years, I’ve come to view serious and progressive illness as an ever constricting circle with oneself at the center. The interior of the circle represents the contents of one’s life. As the circle gets smaller, things that were inside get forced out. Some of these things are dearly missed; other items that were once thought precious get forced to the exterior and turn out to go surprisingly unlamented.
At the innermost point of the circle are the things that really matter: Family, faith, love. These things stay with you until the day that you die. At the very end, because the circle has shrunk down to its center, they’re all you have left.
And so for the moment, John Edwards is staying in the race. Good for him. If he and Elizabeth want to do that, if the doctors concur, if her health does not worsen, why not? Life is short enough as it is. Stay in the race as long as you can because the day comes for all of us when we must pass the baton to the next runner.
Meanwhile, enjoy the journey, savor each moment, draw close to the ones you love, and do not go gentle into that good night.