Unranked media power couple Bill and Emma Keller have discovered a question so pressing, so important to our time that they both felt the need to write a column in their respective papers about it in the same week. Is Lisa Bonchek Adams, a stage four cancer patient, having cancer wrong? According to the Kellers, the answer is "yes."
The biggest problem in their views, seems to be that Adams — who is aggressively blogging and tweeting about every aspect of illness and treatment — just won't be quiet about having cancer.
Emma Keller, who has had cancer herself, published a critical op-ed in the Guardian last Wednesday about Adams's Twitter feed. In it, Keller seems to be concerned about whether Adams's decision to publicly discuss her diagnosis and treatment is "dignified," both for Adams (who "is dying," according to Keller, even though this is a characterization Adams rejects), and for Emma Keller personally. You see, a particularly intense series of updates from Adams apparently ruined the Kellers' Christmas, because Emma couldn't stop reading what Adams wrote, and that gives her complicated feelings:
She could hardly breathe, her lungs were filled with copious amounts of fluid causing her to be bedridden over Christmas. 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?
But the Kellers' concern with how Adams is doing cancer actually goes deeper than Emma's reading habits. Keller's Sunday New York Times piece goes after the aggressive, no-holds-barred manner in which Adams has decided to pursue treatment for the disease. She is willing to try anything, no matter how risky, if it might prolong her life, instead of a more peaceful pain management and palliative approach that others have chose, like Keller's father-in-law. He died from cancer in the U.K., and Keller decides to compare Adams's approach (which he characterizes as "her decision to treat her terminal disease as a military campaign") unfavorably to that of his father-in-law's:
[In the U.K.] 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.
For the record, the "military" metaphors Keller repeatedly associates with Adams's approach to treatment and choice to be public about it is a metaphor Adams herself soundly rejects.
To hear it from the Kellers, Adams's public engagement with cancer invites "judgement" as the "ethical questions abound," as Emma writes. Or, as Bill posits, "her decision to live her cancer onstage invites us to think about it, debate it, learn from it." Not only is it incorrect to assume that Adams's writing comes with an RSVP for judgement from Team Keller, it also appears that the Kellers aren't even looking closely at what they're attacking. For instance, Keller states that Adams has two children at home. According to her Twitter bio, Adams actually has three. They are young — 15, 11, and 7, as of last November. Although it should be obvious, it seems that the Kellers forgot to notice that Adams is neither Bill Keller's father-in-law, nor is she a generic idea of a cancer patient. She is a person, pursuing treatment to extend her life, so that she can spend as much of it as possible with her kids. That is a different thing from refusing palliative — or pain management — care at the end of one's life, as Bill Keller seems to believe (erroneously) that Adams is doing.
And then there's Bill Keller's mini-investigative mission into the parts of Adams's medical treatment and prognosis that remain confidential. Keller apparently asked both Adams and her hospital to detail the financial costs of her treatment, so he could weigh it more accurately against his own assessment of whether it's worth it or not: "Whether or not this excellent care has added months or years to her life, as she clearly believes, is a medical judgment, and her doctors, bound by privacy rules, won’t say," he writes. The insinuation is that her choice to continue to treat her cancer after her stage four diagnoses "may raise false hopes." Keller thinks that such an approach "implicitly, seems to peg patients like my father-in-law as failures."
Except, is not what Adams is doing, as Adams herself said in response:
Again, let me make it clear. honest discussion and acceptance of the reality of diagnosis is what I have always been doing. READ MY WORK.— Lisa Bonchek Adams (@AdamsLisa) January 13, 2014
I've been doing exactly what he supports all along. If he'd actually been reading the posts.— Lisa Bonchek Adams (@AdamsLisa) January 13, 2014
Others have rightly responded with anger to the tag-team cancer-explaining (or "cansplaining," as Megan Garber put it in the Atlantic). Boing Boing's Xeni Jardin — who live-tweeted her own cancer diagnosis — took on Bill Keller's piece in particular. Her whole Twitter response to Keller is worth a read. But here are a few highlights:
Problems I have w Bill Keller's bullying NYT oped about @AdamsLisa, which oddly mirrors & follows his wife's earlier Guardian shitfest:— Xeni Jardin (@xeni) January 13, 2014
14) “Lisa Adams’s choice is in a sense the opposite” of “my father-in-law’s calm death.” SHE'S ALIVE AS YOU CAN TELL BY HER FUCKING TWEETS.— Xeni Jardin (@xeni) January 13, 2014
15) “there is something enviable about going gently” LADIES WITH METS SHOULD BE SEEN AND NOT HEARD.— Xeni Jardin (@xeni) January 13, 2014
False hopes my ass! I remember the day she called me before my mastectomy, with pragmatic, calm, not-fun info. She told me a story.— Xeni Jardin (@xeni) January 13, 2014
Meanwhile, Adams has taken a break from addressing the Kellers' concerns about Adams's life choices, because she is in the middle of a round of treatment. Luckily, she's got plenty of people online to respond for her.
Terrified I might get cancer, because what if Bill and Emma Keller yell at me.
— Ken Jennings (@KenJennings) January 13, 2014
I am appalled on every level by Bill Keller's oped piece about @AdamsLisa. Astonishing.— Susan Orlean (@susanorlean) January 13, 2014
Update: The Guardian has since removed the piece in question by Emma Keller, "because it is inconsistent with the Guardian editorial code."