Barack Obama meant well.
“John McCain is an American hero & one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known,” the former president tweeted on Wednesday after McCain’s office disclosed that the senior senator from Arizona has brain cancer. “Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Give it hell, John.”
Fellow members of Congress offered McCain, 80, similar words of encouragement. And we could not agree more: John McCain is one hell of a fighter. He has been a leader in Congress for 35 years and he showed tremendous courage as a prisoner of war for 5 1/2 years in North Vietnam. We may not always agree with Sen. McCain, but we sure do respect him.
But while words like “fighter” and “bravest” perfectly fit McCain’s fiery spirit, they can come off as cliches — and even unthinkingly unfair — to others who struggle with life-threatening illnesses.
“What do you say to everyone who does everything they can and the disease overtakes them?” asks Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society. “The question becomes, ‘Did I not fight hard enough? Did I lose my battle because I wasn’t as brave as I was supposed to be?’ No one should feel they didn’t fight hard enough.”
Some 600,000 Americans will die of cancer this year. Most of those folks will have fought pretty hard, too. And we should not overlook the courage it takes to know when the fight is over and accept mortality.
“We have to support that,” Lichtenfeld says.
What is the right thing to say to a person suffering from a life-threatening illness? Keep it simple, Lichtenfeld advises.
“Sometimes the most relevant comment is ‘we care,’ ” he says. “ ‘You’re in our thoughts. You’re in our prayers.’ ”
Today, we are thinking about Sen. John McCain.
Send letters to: email@example.com