Former NYT editor mansplains to cancer patient to shut up and die the right way


Some journalists speak truth to power. But others, like former New York Times editor Bill Keller and the Guardian’s Emma Keller, write shaming and condescending advice to cancer patients.

Last Wednesday, Emma Keller decided to write about Lisa Adams, whose twitter bio reads, “Living w/stage 4 breast cancer. Writing about it at . Mom to 3…. Doing as much as I can for as long as I can.” Well, for Keller, Adams is doing too much. In her op-ed “Forget funeral selfies. What are the ethics of tweeting a terminal illness?” (which provoked so much criticism the Guardian has removed it) Keller writes of Adams:

As her condition declined, her tweets amped up both in frequency and intensity. I couldn’t stop reading – I even set up a dedicated @adamslisa column in Tweetdeck – but I felt embarrassed at my voyeurism. Should there be boundaries in this kind of experience? Is there such a thing as TMI? Are her tweets a grim equivalent of deathbed selfies, one step further than funeral selfies? Why am I so obsessed?

Keller seems annoyed by the frequency of Adams’s tweeting: “Over the past few years she has tweeted more than 165,000 times (well over 200 tweets in the past 24 hours alone.)” At the same time, Keller is bothered that Adams is omitting crucial information: “She describes a fantastic set up at Sloan-Kettering, where she can order what she wants to eat at any time of day or night and get as much pain medication as she needs from a dedicated and compassionate ‘team’, but there is no mention of the cost.” I guess Lisa is guilty of too little information (TLI), as well.

Keller chastises Adams for expecting privacy, saying, in effect, if you didn’t want people you didn’t know to show up in your hospital room, you shouldn’t have written that tweet: “She was enraged a few days ago when a couple of people turned up to visit her unannounced. She’s living out loud online, but she wants her privacy in real life.” In case Adams missed Keller’s point, she reiterates it, addressing Lisa directly ”You can put a ‘no visitors sign’ on the door of your hospital room, but you welcome the world into your orbit and describe every last Fentanyl patch.”

Enter Bill Keller– former New York Times editor, current weekly columnist, and hubby/ knight in shining journalist armor of Emma Kelly– to the rescue. Bill decided to dedicate his column Monday to Lisa Adams as well. Speaking of TLI, Bill doesn’t even acknowledge that, coincidentally, his wife wrote about the very same woman less than a week ago, until the seventh paragraph! Bill condescendingly writes that, “Lisa Adams is still alive, still blogging, and insists she is not dying…” He contrasts Adams’s actions to the actions, or lack thereof, taken by his father-in-law:

In October 2012 I wrote about my father-in-law’s death from cancer in a British hospital. There, more routinely than in the United States, patients are offered the option of being unplugged from everything except pain killers and allowed to slip peacefully from life. His death seemed to me a humane and honorable alternative to the frantic medical trench warfare that often makes an expensive misery of death in America.

Translation: “Hey Lisa! Some of my best friends are My father-in-law had cancer, too! I mean, he was 79, and you’re not 40 yet and have a few young kids, but whatevs. Couldn’t you be more…unplugged? Couldn’t you die a more honorable death?”

Now there’s more. But if you’re mansplain-dar has already gone off, you’re not alone. Journalist Xeni Jardin, who has also tweeted about her breast cancer and says she was taken out of context by Emma Keller, tweeted that the Bill op-ed was:

…bizarrely tone-deaf, ghoulish, & lacking in empathy all at once. It mansplains breast cancer, but as if talking about a pork chop….Women w/metastatic disease are marginalized in the feelgood pinkwar. This oped reinforces that lack of respect for dignity, and bullies…it feels like a privileged man telling a woman in a hard place to just shut the fuck up and disappear.

Bill mansplains that Lisa doesn’t need to fight or take any “heroic measures”: “Among doctors here, there is a growing appreciation of palliative care that favors the quality of the remaining life rather than endless ‘heroic measures’ that may or may not prolong life but assure the final days are clamorous, tense and painful. (And they often leave survivors bankrupt.)…every cancer need not be Verdun, a war of attrition waged regardless of the cost or the casualties.”

And then, in words that must have Dylan Thomas convulsing in his grave, Bill says, “There is something enviable about going gently.” In case you missed the point, Bill ends his article by quoting another man who is critical of how Adams is treating her cancer: Steven Goodman, an associate dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine, makes the predictable disclaimer, “I’m the last person to second-guess what she did….I’m sure it has brought meaning, a deserved sense of accomplishment.” And then goes on to say, “But it shouldn’t be unduly praised.”

Bill would be wise to stop playing doctor, since he still hasn’t mastered journalism. As Adams pointed out,  ”If anyone even looked at my bio they would know I have three kids. Nice way to do research.” Speaking of shoddy journalism, as Greg Mitchell writes in The Nation, this “no fighting” advice comes “from the man who was a hawk on Iraq, staunchly defended Judy Miller and recently called for the bombing of Syria and backing the Al Qaeda rebels. ”

Unlike Bill, I’m not going to end my article by quoting a doctor who warns against praising Adams. I’m going to do what the Kellers, sadly, didn’t: let Lisa speak for herself and have the last word.

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