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April 03, 2007

Looking at Elizabeth and John Edwards with Cancer Lifeline Folks

The American public is hungering for authentic presences on the national front.  Even before the Edwardses announcement last week, that was clear.  The mostly positive responses to Elizabeth and John's 1-2 announcement that 1) she has treatable but incurable, metastasized breast cancer and 2) they were going to continue on his/their quest for the presidency despite that, have confirmed that idea.  In fact it appears that the courage and grace and willingness to talk about real things like death that they exhibited touched a cord for people.   Both John Edwards' poll numbers and his contributions went way up this last week.  The Seattle Times had both an editorial and a great article by Joni Balter that praised their composure and calm in the face of the cancer and their resolution to go on with a candidacy that clearly matters so much to them.

Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman had this oft-repeated quote from Elizabeth that summed up her message and was delivered with a grace that we have rarely seen on the American political landscape:

"We're all going to die," said Elizabeth. "And I pretty much know what I'm going to die of. ... But I do want to live as full and normal a life as I can from this point on."

Like so many people, I was greatly moved and hugely impressed with the basic decency and integrity that their announcements showed.  I have found that people who grapple with their own death or the deaths of those closest to them, are often, not always but often, living with a spirit that is just a pleasure to be around.  They have had a fast path to becoming their essential selves and it shows. 

John Edwards has been very clear that he "is seeking neither votes nor campaign contributions by exploiting his wife's tragedy".   Nonetheless, when we see people doing an amazing thing right in front of us,  we as a nation are going to be more willing to allow them into our lives - which is likely to translate to votes.

I decided I'd check in with a couple of folks who are very familiar in dealing with individuals and families living with cancer and dying of cancer both.  So I asked my friend, Marian Svinth, current Chair of the Board at Cancer Lifeline in Seattle, if I might talk with her and Jan Gray, Executive Director of the organization.  Marian first gave me a little tour through the remodeled building in the Greenlake neighborhood where Cancer Lifeline has been located since 1999.  The building is the brainchild of Barbara Frederick, the long-time former Executive Director.   A lot of love has gone into the different small garden areas, indoor and outdoor meditation/prayer/family areas, art areas, kitchen, hallways, offices, all of it.   Dozens of organizations and families in the Seattle area have contributed to making this place very special, whether by bringing flowers by every week or loaning art or providing materials for incredibly touching and beautiful art projects.

There was one exhibit that particularly grabbed me.  There were several dozen individually made torso "masks" displayed in the upper hallway and down the stairs to the main floor.  Marian said that a department store had provided the bare plastic torsos of women's bodies.  Then individual women worked with these, using paints, fabrics, and cut-outs to describe visually how they felt about their breasts and tummies and pelvic areas.  They were stunning.   

I was there to ask Jan and Marian about how they saw the reactions to the Edwardses twin announcements and how it fit with their understanding of how folks living with and around cancer reacted.  My interview with them is over the fold preceded by a brief description of the services that the organization provides.

About Cancer Lifeline

Cancer Lifeline provides a toll-free 24-hour "lifeline" for people living with cancer.  Those in range of the facilities in the Greenlake area of Seattle also have access to a large array of classes, programs and resources.  For thirty years, Cancer Lifeline has been listening to those folks living with cancer, whether it be folks with cancer, cancer survivors or family, friends and caregivers of people with cancer.  The needs they address are informed by that listening and include:

  • Choice and control
  • Information
  • Opportunities to express feelings and emotions without being judged
  • Inclusion rather than isolation   

Interview with Jan Gray and Marian Svinth of Cancer Lifeline

Q:  The reaction to the announcement of Elizabeth's cancer and John's continuing candidacy has been very positive so far.  Does that surprise you?

JG:  Pleasantly so.  I think for many people the first reaction was, "Oh, my God, how could she?"  We're totally about choice and control.  When you reflect that question back to people, most people turn around their reaction.  In this case, I think people shifted to "How do you be negative about what is overall an incredibly positive statement?"

Q:  How does her reaction fit with your understanding of how people respond to news of cancer?   Especially people who are in their second cancer diagnosis?

JG:  She's been there, been through the treatment.  She has an idea of what that implies.  She's been dealing with it for two and a half years already. 

MS: She's been through the journey once.  It's not blind and terrifying.

JG:  What I say is, death is a minute.  Everything else is life.  People have commented to us on this.  For the most part, people are saying, "You go, girl!"  Also, there is good reason to be optimistic.  There are hormonal treatments that have allowed people to be well for years with this type of cancer.

Q:  What else did you see in her very public responses?

MS:  A lot of authenticity.  There was a congruence between the words and music.  It's easy to say you support "Control and Choice" but when someone's choice isn't the one you think you'd make, it can be difficult.  When someone is as congruent as she has been in how they speak and come across, it is much easier to see that this is really her choice.

JG:  Making that choice in the public arena must have been weighty.  Most of us do it in private.  They couldn't pretend for a moment that this wouldn't be fodder for the pundits.  Their reaction was amazing.

MS:  We got to see how well they dealt with it at the moment.

Q:  Do you see any political consequences?

JG:  As a feminist, separate from my role in this organization, I think it has really turned the political dynamic on its head.  We have a woman, Hillary Clinton, running for office.  Now we also have a man, John Edwards, who says his first commitment is to his wife.  He has already proven that he means it.  I don't think any other man in public office, Bill Clinton included, could say that and so clearly mean it.

MS:  John Edwards is the candidate who has already thought through his healthcare policy.  It was in fact driven in part by his wife's original diagnosis and treatment.  This situation will likely keenly inform the health care proposals in this next election.

Thank you.

Posted by Lynn Allen on April 3, 2007 at 03:12 PM in Interviews, National and International Politics | Permalink

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