Bill Keller

A Breast Cancer Survivor Schools the Kellers on Lisa Adams’ Need to Tweet

And can’t understand why this journalist couple is so fixated on defaming a woman with stage-IV cancer. No matter, their bile has earned her more followers than ever.

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Last Thursday, The Guardian’s Emma Keller eviscerated Lisa Bonchek Adams for the way she’s living with stage-IV breast cancer in a post that was just taken down today, entitled, “Forget funeral selfies. What are the ethics of tweeting a terminal illness?” The writer, wife of former New York Times editor Bill Keller, took issue with Adams’ public sharing of her cancer experience. Keller uses pieces of private correspondence with Adams that she wasn’t authorized to use and wonders, “Are those of us who’ve been drawn into her story going to remember a dying woman’s courage, or are we hooked on a narrative where the stakes are the highest?” She later issued a note saying I “could have given [Adams] advance warning about the article and should have told her that I planned to quote from our conversations. I regret not doing so.”

From the moment the piece posted, the Twittersphere has been on fire, with tweeters rushing to defend Adams’ choices. For those readers who don’t know the story: Adams tweets throughout the day from her room at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, faithfully describing her treatment and its often excruciating side effects, and how the experience of living with stage-IV breast cancer affects her as a wife and mother of three. Several thousand souls choose to follow her. The recent controversy sparked by Emma Keller has, not surprisingly, earned Adams an even bigger following.

The plot thickened Sunday as Emma’s husband, Bill, jumped in to the conversation, writing in the opinion pages of The New York Times, picking up his wife’s argument where she left off. “My first thought was of my father-in-law’s calm death,” writes Mr. Keller. “Lisa Adams’ choice is in a sense the opposite. Her aim was to buy as much time as possible to watch her two children grow up. So she is all about heroic measures. She is constantly engaged in battlefield strategy with her medical team. There is always the prospect of another research trial to excite her hopes. She responds defiantly to any suggestion that the end is approaching.”

And, your point? Mr. Keller, who must have been in a rush to defame Ms. Adams—because he got his facts wrong. For starters: She has three children, not two. Nothing like slapdash journalism—from a veteran newsman from the newspaper of record, no less—to erode a person’s credibility.

But the bigger message to the Kellers is this: There are many ways to live, and just as many ways to die. Denial is an absolutely fine defense mechanism, as is feistiness. It is impossible—and arrogant—to adjudicate among them. And when one has power, when one has access to the pages of The New York Times or The Guardian and chooses to fill them this way—well, then it’s downright egregious.  

Because when a life-threatening diagnosis comes, the bubble we all happily walk around in, the one in which we all pretend we are not going to die, is destroyed. As we go through tests and experience fear, discomfort and pain, we learn in our bones that this life is temporary.

I know because I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, just after my 40th birthday. I faced terror and saw that my time here, my time with my two small children—then 6 and 10—might soon be up.

I went through treatment and reached out to friends. They were great friends who brought me special kinds nuts rich in iron when I turned anemic, who sat on the couch and watched Saturday Night Live with me. But my friends had jobs and families too. Most of the time, during four surgeries, six rounds of chemotherapy, and a slow climb back to health, I was on my own.

What did I do? I started a blog. Right away. For exactly the same reasons that Lisa Adams did. My friends, especially those far away, said they wanted to keep up with my treatment. I posted updates one to two times per week. Knowing someone was out there, tuning into my struggles, helped buoy me through one of the most frightening experiences of my life.

It is possible that this connection to others, albeit virtually, actually helped me—and Adams—extend our lives. Cancer feeds on loneliness, literally, as do many other diseases. The immune system thrives on company. This strategy of Adams’s may very literally be prolonging her life.

In the pages of the New Republic, Judith Shulevitz writes about The Lethality of Loneliness: “Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.”

In her case, Lisa Adams is giving her readers and followers a chance to watch this experience very, very close up. Voyeurism, Ms. Keller? Maybe. We can’t know. But what a gift for all of us, to have an insight on palliative care, terminal illness, and bravery. Ms. Adams’ followers will store this away for the time when it is their turn. This is not a bad thing. This is a good thing. No one gets out of here alive.

Fighting cancer, going through surgeries and treatments, is one of the toughest things a person will ever do. Mr. Keller implies in his piece that Adams has used her social media following to get preferential treatment at Sloan Kettering. Never mind how cynical a declaration that is: When you’re fighting cancer, you will sacrifice sleep over and over again from depression and anxiety. Terror. It will run your life. So, this guy is going to begrudge a woman with stage-IV cancer her good treatment at Sloan? Incredible. If you don’t like what she has to say, don’t follow her. But please don’t defame her in the pages of this nation’s most revered newspaper. Let her have her dignity.

Lisa Adams’ words are the honest, brave, often funny words of a real woman struggling with something monumental and looking her own death in the face. She has something of value to show us, if we want to see it—a slice of living that is usually obscured from view. Let’s not spill ink debating whether her mission is worthy. Let’s support her. She deserves that and more.


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