News & Press

The New York Times & Cancer Survival

The MRF’s Executive Director shares his thoughts on the recent controversy involving a New York Times’ editor and his criticism of breast cancer patient Lisa Adams.

I am old enough to remember when the word “cancer” was rarely spoken, and then only in whispers. Cancer patients were victims—both of the disease and of a society that kept them isolated during a time when they most needed comfort and support.
Today’s headlines, in contrast, are about a New York Times editor being castigated for critiquing the decision of breast cancer patient Lisa Adams to provide live updates of her personal battle with Stage IV breast cancer via the 140-character format of Twitter. Both the editor, Bill Keller, and his wife Emma have written about Lisa’s tweets and questioned her decision to be publicly candid about her experiences and feelings. Ms. Keller, herself a breast cancer survivor, questioned the ethics of this type of disclosure and suggested the Tweets are “terminal-illness selfies.”
The MRF hosts the largest melanoma-focused online community in the world, MPIP, on which many, many patients tell their experiences and share treatment plans. We encourage patients to tell their stories on our website, in our patient symposia, and through our print newsletter. These bits of self-disclosure are often cathartic and therapeutic for the patient and caregivers, and also can provide comfort and support for those who read them. They underscore the critical message: You are not alone.
We live in a world of intrusive paparazzi, NSA spying and identity theft. Reality television has exposed us to more than we ever wanted to know about Jersey shore gym culture, the pawn industry in Las Vegas and how to get rich selling duck calls. These shows and, yes, even some blogs have a narcissistic flavor to them. As comic George Carlin noted many years ago, our magazines have moved from Life to People to Us, and are likely soon to go to Me!
When someone is facing life-threatening cancer, though, being self-focused is a survival trait. You must advocate for yourself. You must ask for help. You must be honest about how you feel and about your feelings. If you don’t do these things, you might lose the battle to a disease that never, ever fights fair.
So I say, let Lisa Adams tweet as much as she wants and about whatever she wants. If her Tweets are a “selfie” of her life’s end then so be it. To the Kellers—or anyone else—who are upset by this, here is my advice: stop reading the tweets if you don’t like them. Disconnecting from a Twitter feed is, I guarantee, a lot easier than going through Stage IV cancer alone.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Written by Tim Turnham, the MRF's Executive Director