Elizabeth Edwards Shows How to Treat Cancer

Wednesday, April 04, 2007 at 09:21 AM

I'm no fan of John Edwards, but as a cancer doctor, I do admire his and his spouse's candor in talking so publicly about their private lives and their decision to continue his presidential campaign. The news offers a unique opportunity to dispel dangerous myths about cancer and about death.

As a medical oncologist who has ministered to thousands of terminally ill people, I know that the process of dying may be treasured as much as any other human experience. One's life becomes meaningful only when one learns to come to terms with death. We are all going to die. The only way to defeat death is to co-opt it as we still live.

But before anyone should presume to advise the Edwardses about managing cancer in the family, there are two basic orders of business to keep in mind. First, Elizabeth Edwards may not die of cancer any time soon; indeed, she may not die of cancer at all. It is not far-fetched to assume that she may survive two presidential terms, able to exercise the functions of a first lady. Second, the proximity of death may represent the best opportunity to celebrate life by focusing on the goals one considers most important and rewarding.

Mrs. Edwards may not die any time soon. As far as we know her cancer involves only the bones, and those patients may live several years. I have seen patients with breast cancers metastatic to the bones surviving 20 years and longer. Some of them would have died of another preventable cause, such as a heart attack or a stroke had I not been able to force the hand of a vascular surgeon reluctant to operate on the heart or the carotid of a person with metastatic cancer!

As long as it does not involve more vital organs such as the liver, the lung, or the brain, Mrs. Edwards' cancer may not represent an impediment to an effective political campaign more serious than the multiple sclerosis of Mitt Romney's wife, and certainly not as serious as FDR's polio. Considering the rapid progress in the management of breast cancer, it is not overly optimistic to expect that each year of life gain may produce several additional years, as a result of new discoveries.

Should Mrs. Edwards die of cancer, I can't think of any better way of facing death than pursuing one of hers and her spouse's lifelong dreams. In my experience the patients with the most memorable deaths have been those able to uphold a vision of life that went beyond the temporal limits of their own existence: those who enjoyed planting trees and flowers that they knew they would never see grow; those who realize that the only certain excitement of life is the journey.

Why should we be surprised, then, if a couple endowed with the talent, the endurance and the charisma to pursue the presidency of the United States should not renounce this aspiration just because a serious disease may cut their life short? Mrs. Edwards must believe that her husband is the best candidate for the presidency, arguably the position in the world that may touch more human lives than any other. Would it not be terribly selfish of her to claim her husband for herself rather than helping him to develop his full potential to serve other people? After all, this was the promise of their wedding vows. And this example of selflessness would certainly represent the most lasting gift for her children. What better boost to their self-confidence than the certainty that only a life of service is worth living?

Dying may represent a unique opportunity to distill our lives to what really matters, what truly makes us feel worthy.

A tourist who has only 24 hours to visit Rome may elect to run from one monument to another trying to pack as many experiences as possible in a limited time. Most likely, at the end of the day he will be confused, exhausted and disappointed. Or he may decide to climb one of the Roman hills, such as the Gianicolo, from where he can gain a global impression of the city and chose the monuments he really cares to visit. Then the short visit may become really memorable.

The proximity of death may represent our personal Gianicolo with a global view of our personal lives, highlighting what matters to us. The Edwardses have shown that it can be done, and have led the way.

Dr. Lodovico Balducci is a professor of oncology and medicine at the University of South Florida College of Medicine and is the director of the Division of Geriatric Oncology at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center.


so you're no fan of john edwards? well, ok. but that has nothing to do with fighting cancer. why is that statement necessary?

is it code for 'i'm an bush loving whore'?

i found your article to be inspiring and heart-felt. however, i agree with the poster above who said it was unnecessary to declare your feelings toward john edwards. that statement takes away from the article and also manages to alienate. doctors shouldn't alienate. but all in all, i am happy to hear that elizabeth edwards may indeed live a long, productive life.

Some people just can't resist the temptation to throw in a political barb, regardless of the context. I suppose Dr. Balducci is one.

Why does everything need to become political? Why? Why does a person need to seize the opportunity to insert a vulgar comment into a conversation about cancer? There is nothing political about cancer. I'm no fan of Presidnt Bush, but we go with the president we have, not the one we might like to have. If Dr Balducci had not qualified his opinion, would some other wing nut attack him for his partisan support? I'm guessing the author of the first comment has no clue what it's like to face the terror of a cancer diagnosis. I have, and I applaud the Edward's for their openness. Maybe you will get your chance to try it on for size, see how *you* like it...

A well done article. Even a "doctor" can state an opinion on politics (for those bashers of the gentleman). His article was well done. He gave a good prespective on life's sojourn. We each take it differently.
For the Edward's , they have decided on their path. I too am not a political supporter of Edwards, but I support them in the quest, both politically and health wise.

Hey, everybody.... in case you missed it, this is a political site, featuring political commentary.

And just in case the language construct and effect of the first sentence needs to be explained to you knuckleheads, the statement that he is not a fan of Edwards foreshadows that he is about to praise someone or something that he does not particularly like.

It does not take away from the article, though the comments that have next to nothing to do with anything other than the first few words show a remarkable lack of attention and intelligence.


There, now only talk about the word poop, monkeys.


so insert the word 'you' in the first sentence above. does that make you feel good to the doctor? would you want a doctor to declare any sort of political leaning, right off the bat?

i agree with the first response above. it shouldn't have been said.

to the visitor comment above who wishes i get cancer, go fuck yourself. i'm sorry you got cancer, but you ruin your argument when you say i'm trying to make this a political argument. i'm NOT. YOU are. i said the doctor SHOULDN'T make qualified statements such as the one he starts off with. he should be APOLITICAL and proud of it. YOU are the one who made it political, not me. the doctor made it political, not me. so from me to you: go fuck yourself. and thanks for being so nice and wishing i get cancer.

eat a dick.