Handle With Care: When Public Figures Get Cancer

Poor Katie Couric. Lest anyone accuse her of going all soft and "Today Show," showing too much cancer widow and mother and too little tough journalist, she erred the other way in her recent interview with John Edwards, and of course is getting mercilessly criticized for it.

Hopefully Tony Snow will be spared any such grilling when he takes back the podium.

The juxtaposition of cancer recurrences for two such well-liked public figures as Elizabeth Edwards and Snow — both young, both parents of young children, both moving on with life in such positive ways, both hit so hard and both optimistic and determined to keep living — raises the question not of whether they can pull off the challenge of living with cancer with dignity, but whether the rest of us can.

The big problem with Katie’s interview is that she was asking the questions many people want answered but don’t necessarily want to hear asked. Edwards said the questions were legitimate, which of course is what he has to say, but that is only partly true. Yes, we’re entitled to ask if the president will be distracted; no, we’re not entitled to shrink away because we don’t want to deal with the prospect of losing a first lady.

If we’re going to live with cancer as a nation, that involves more than rooting from the sidelines. How we think about cancer, unconsciously as well as consciously, is the big issue on the table.

Cathy Seipp, the much-respected journalist/blogger and mother of a much-loved 17-year-old daughter who died last week after a five-year battle with advanced lung cancer, kept her illness a secret from the public and her readers for three-and-a-half of those years, not only to protect her privacy but to ensure that people wouldn’t view her work differently because of her diagnosis.

My friend Judy Jarvis went out of her way to keep cancer talk to a minimum in the years she continued to do her talk radio show while living with incurable lung cancer because it changed the entire dynamic of the show — and besides, it wasn’t the topic that most interested her.

I don’t really have much doubt that Edwards and Snow, the former a woman I know and admire, the latter a real friend, will rise to the challenges they face. But can we keep seeing them as the people they are, and not solely or even primarily as people living with cancer? Can we get beyond the diagnosis and the prognosis, or do we get stuck there? And what does getting stuck mean?

Ask any cancer survivor who has applied for a job about the issues involved in how to disclose health history and about the illness' impact on employers, coworkers and others. People treat you as sick. Or as somebody who could be sick. The problem isn’t just the obvious one: that you won’t be hired or promoted in these circumstances. It is also the less obvious ones like never being able to have a cold without everyone thinking you’re dying, or needing to do more to counter the assumption that you will do less, or getting too much sympathy and too little actual support.

The problem is being defined by your disability by the rest of us.

The anti-discrimination laws have sorted some of this out, at least the explicit parts. But it’s the unconscious assumptions that often count for more than the conscious ones and that questions like Katie’s underscore.

For many of us, particularly those of us with children, the first thing we think about is what we would do in the same circumstances. The answer is that, thankfully, most of us will never know what we would do, because we won’t face that choice. But it’s the wrong question, ultimately. The question is whether someone else is entitled to make the choice that’s right for them, or whether our discomfort with it, or with them, should limit that right.

It’s not that it’s none of our business why the Edwards decided to continue their campaign; in politics, everything is our business when it comes to the candidates. It’s just that we’re in no position to judge or to second guess how right the decision was, for them or for us. It’s theirs to make, and ours to support. That’s why, I think, hearing Katie push to get the answers grates, even as we strain to listen.

Living in the face of death, Tony Snow chose to be White House press secretary, one of the most exciting and time-consuming jobs in the world. His doctor could not have given him any guarantees of how long he would be cancer-free; in his case, there weren’t any. He took the best job he ever had. Hopefully, he will soon be back at it.

A mistake? Of course not. Had he known then that his cancer would be back within the year, do I think he still would have taken the job? I do. But the point is that it would be up to him, not to us. As it is with the Edwards family.

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Click here to link to Susan's new book, "Soulless."

Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was previously Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and was the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System,” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for foxnews.com.

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