There Is No Gentle Death for a Mother

Lisa Bonchek Adams is not "live tweeting her terminal illness." She is live tweeting her LIFE -- much the same way the rest of us who use social media do -- which includes grief, loss, and yes, terminal illness.
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On Sunday night, as I lay in a bed in a darkened room with my 6-year-old son's arms twisted around mine, newly slack with sleep, I clicked the Twitter app on my phone. I wasn't quite sure my son was far enough into his dreams to leave him, but I was missing the Golden Globes, and I was curious to see what Twitter had to say about them.

Twitter reconnected me to the world going on outside my son's bedroom: there was plenty of chatter about the seating chart, the dresses and the winners. But instead, what jumped out was a tweet mentioning something about The Guardian, The New York Times and writer and blogger Lisa Bonchek Adams. I immediately lost interest in who was wearing what at the Golden Globes.

By now, the news of Emma G. Keller's controversial (and now pulled) piece about Adams for The Guardian and her husband Bill Keller's equally controversial and subsequent op-ed for The New York Times has spread across the Internet. Several writers have explored the editorial implications of the posts better than I ever could.

Lying next to my 6-year-old, who is only a year younger than Adams's youngest child, I was a mixture of shocked and livid after I finished the Kellers' two pieces. Both emphasized how many tweets Adams sends out a day, implying that the number is excessive. Both analyzed the amount of information about her treatments and her pain Adams includes in her blog posts and her tweets. Bill Keller's comparison to his father-in-law's "calm death" was vaguely critical of what he deemed Adams's approach to be, even stating at one point that, "It seemed to me, and still does, that there is something enviable about going gently" instead.

As strange and invasive as Emma Keller's original post felt to a reader on the outside looking in, Bill Keller's ignited a visceral reaction of anger from me as a woman, as a mother and as someone who has loved and does love people in treatment for metastatic cancer.

I can understand certain points in both of the Kellers' posts. I respect individuals who choose to be more private about their suffering or who decide not to accept "heroic measures" and instead let a terminal illness take its course. There are certainly many ways to live -- and die -- courageously and with grace.

But I want to say something in support of Lisa Bonchek Adams. As a mother, I wholly and passionately understand her desire to live every day she can on the same planet as her husband and her children. For a mother whose children are the ages that Adams's are -- for a woman only in her mid-40s -- there is no truly gentle, quiet path to death. Even if she never sent out a single tweet about her wrenching pain, even if she never blogged about her next course of treatment, even if she sat silently and stoically in her hospital bed while she completes her current radiation treatment to eradicate the cancer that has spread to her bones -- even then, "the inevitable" that Bill Keller insists on repeating would not be simple or peaceful to someone leaving her young children without her.

As a mother, I cannot imagine accepting such a fate without kicking, screaming and hanging on with everything I have. You can be sure I would be in any clinical trial that made sense, that I would try every treatment available to me and that I would do whatever I could to promote research and awareness for what was trying to take me from my children. I would do anything I had to do to be here. If that meant tweeting, blogging and using social media both to educate and support other women and lay bare to the world exactly what cancer means to a young woman with everything to live for -- then damn straight, I would be on my 165,000th tweet too.

The fact that Emma Keller's father passed away from cancer and that Keller herself also had a "brush" with it, as her husband mentioned in his piece, should only highlight the fact that cancer affects everyone; no one is immune to its hateful reach. At this stage of my life, as I have written before, cancer is touching and has taken too many people I love. In particular, the number of women that I know who have been affected by breast cancer makes me incredibly angry. But you won't see me wearing a T-shirt declaring that we need to "Save the Ta-Tas." Instead, I want to save the beautiful, brilliant, talented, beloved, important human beings for whom those breasts are just a small part of a wonderful whole. Women like Lisa Bonchek Adams are the entire world to their families. They are needed. They want to be here. The only way to ensure that is to promote research for effective treatments as fast as possible, using all our collective powers -- including social media -- even if it makes some people uncomfortable.

I disagree with the Kellers on one very important point in particular: Lisa Bonchek Adams is not "live tweeting her terminal illness." She is live tweeting her LIFE -- much the same way the rest of us who use social media do -- which includes grief, loss, and yes, terminal illness. She is a writer, writing the best way she can at this moment. What she has to say is true, is honest and is important. Most significantly, it is her choice. Cancer might have taken many things from Adams and women like her, but it hasn't taken away her voice. For that, I am grateful.