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Jane Ahlin, Published December 12 2010

Ahlin: Elizabeth Edwards reminds us language of cancer is personal

One of my all-time favorite movie lines comes from the 1987 romantic comedy “Moonstruck.” Rose, the Italian mother played by Olympia Dukakis, has discovered that her husband, Cosmos, played by Vincent Gardenia, is having an affair. Instead of confronting him openly, she tells him, “I just want you to know no matter what you do, you’re gonna die, just like everybody else.”

To which, he mockingly replies, “Thank you, Rose.”

Minus the irony and in memoriam, we should thank Elizabeth Edwards, who died from breast cancer this past week, not only for telling us what Rose told Cosmos: Sooner or later everybody dies, but also for passionately living out what that meant to her: life as an untidy mixture of guts, gusto and grace.

Three years ago, when her cancer recurred in her bones, Edwards said frankly that it could be treated but not cured. Eventually, and probably much sooner than she wished, she would die from cancer. At that moment she was hopeful that her treatment could go on a long, long while; in fact, she made clear how much she wanted to see her two young children reach adulthood.

Having lost a child to a car accident and never really coming to terms with her grief, she knew how wrenching her death would be for her children. And yet, she had to be realistic. She could not control the course the cancer would take; she only could control the way she lived her life.

What she did not know then, of course, was that she would have to deal with more than terminal cancer. Her husband of 30 years, like the character Cosmos in “Moonstruck,” was cheating on her. Worse yet, Elizabeth Edwards – fiercely devoted to her own children – would have to accept that the “other woman” had given birth to her husband’s child. And all that ugly, messy, heartbreaking stuff would play out on a too, too public stage.

In that muddle, Elizabeth Edwards did not always conduct herself well. But before she died, she found a way to make peace, reportedly reaching out to the child her husband fathered outside their marriage and bringing her husband and children back together in their home. Not long before she died, she wrote, “There are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human.”

After my annual medical checkup last winter, I got a call that there was something on the mammogram that needed rechecking. The call was much like another that began my own saga with breast cancer 17 years ago. This time, however, the call came when my family happened to be dealing with an entirely different medical crisis, and I remember thinking, “C’mon, God, no fair piling on.”

It turned out that everything was fine, but sitting in the cubicle after the redo, waiting to find out whether I was headed for biopsy, I found myself experiencing again that sense of vulnerability and loss of control that accompanies serious illness, particularly cancer.

The emotion is odd and alienating. Yes, there is struggle in dealing with a life-threatening disease, but the real challenge is keeping self-identity and a feeling of normalcy in day-to-day living when disease strips away the comforting ordinariness of life.

Writing about the death of Elizabeth Edwards, one columnist said it’s time to get rid of the combat metaphors for cancer patients – terms such as “war” and “battle.”

The columnist, herself, was diagnosed with malignant melanoma some months back, and, for her, the language of cancer is personal. Viewing it from inside the cancer experience, she finds the rhetoric objectionable. That cancer is a part of life for her and many others is undeniable, but nobody’s life should be defined by “winning” or “losing” a “battle” with cancer.

That attitude diminishes good work and happy experiences along the way, as if life after diagnosis is nothing more than a fight to the finish. As she said, “I’ll save my battles for AT&T customer service.”

She’s discovered what Elizabeth Edwards knew and shared: True-to-ourselves, authentic living is a choice we make, regardless of circumstance and in spite of hardship or disease.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum’s commentary page.