With sadness, I read the news about the death of journalist, political commentator and author Cokie Roberts last week. And just days later when a reader shared the news about the death of actress and TV personality Suzanne Whang, I was saddened yet again.
Both women died from metastatic breast cancer. I know you join me in sending condolences to the families, friends and fans of these two amazing and inspiring women. They touched a lot of lives.
To be clear, this post is not a criticism of these two women or their loved ones. Actually, it’s not even about them. It’s about words, specifically, the words metastatic breast cancer.
You might want to read, Metastatic Breast Cancer: The Unspoken Words
Obviously, these two women aren’t the only well-known people to have shared about their cancer experiences, nor are theirs the only breast cancer deaths to have been reported on of late. However, their names have been in the news most recently, hence the focus on them in this particular post.
Celebrities and other well-known people sharing publicly about their illnesses brings awareness and hopefully more urgency to the need for further cancer research that will result in less harsh, more effective treatments and extended lives for anyone facing cancer.
When any well-known public figure dies from cancer, or whatever her/his illness was, and that information is shared publicly as well, that matters too. Doing so brings the possibility of bringing not just attention, but additional clarity to that particular illness.
When I read the news about the death of Cokie Roberts, that potential for clarity instead felt muddied up.
As a person who knows quite a lot about what a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis means for a person and her family, even I was confused by the headlines and the family statement that referred to the cause of Roberts’ death as complications from breast cancer.
What does that even mean?
Such a statement does not bring clarity.
Of course, I respect a family’s right to share what they choose about their dear one’s illness and/or death. Privacy is important. I get that. I do.
However, Cokie Roberts was a respected journalist and role model for many. Accuracy in reporting mattered to her. It should matter to all of us, including reporters reporting on her death.
Wouldn’t clarity in reporting about her death, in fact, be honoring her memory?
Roberts was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer in 2002. She talked publicly about her diagnosis touting mammograms and early detection. Early detection was/is supposed to be enough.
How many times have we all heard that?
Clearly, it was/is not. (Though it’s still important.)
To my knowledge, details about her cancer’s recurrence haven’t been widely shared. There was brief mention of the cancer coming back in a piece by Nina Totenberg, a colleague and friend of Roberts.
If Roberts chose to share about her early stage diagnosis, does not her family have some obligation to make a clearer statement about her cancer’s recurrence and her subsequent death from the same disease? (They still could.)
Perhaps responsibility to report more accurately and completely here primarily falls to news organizations.
Isn’t this their job?
Why the hesitancy to report that she died from metastatic breast cancer?
Again, she was an esteemed journalist. Facts and clarity should matter when reporting about her life and her death too.
Perhaps journalists need to become better informed, ask more focused questions and write more accurately about breast cancer (and other cancers) in general, but especially when writing about metastatic cancer of any kind. And when someone dies from it, that fact should be clearly stated as well, not muddied up.
Again, why is there hesitancy to use the words, metastatic breast cancer, anyway?
It was the same deal, at least in the articles I read, when Suzanne Whang’s death was reported. No mention of the word metastatic. Or Stage 4. Her partner chose the words, lost her 13-year battle with breast cancer, and while those are not words I would ever choose, it’s not my place to suggest words he should use.
My concern is with the words not spoken in the reporting.
Again, why leave out the words, metastatic breast cancer or stage 4, when sharing and/or reporting about a person’s diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer or a person’s death from the same?
Label it (mbc) correctly. Yes, privacy and gentleness matter. Olivia Newton-John didn’t use the term “metastatic cancer.” Yet, how else to describe a cancer that has spread outside of the primary site to the bones? Metastatic breast cancer is scary, but it is not so scary that it cannot be mentioned.
Amen to that.
You might want to read, Do We Expect Too Much from Celebrities Diagnosed with Cancer?
Clarity with words matters. When talking about such serious things, it matters even more.
How can we expect people to learn about and begin to understand the gravity of a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis if so many of us avoid even saying the words?
When someone dies from metastatic breast cancer, it’s time to use the words. It’s time to say the person died from metastatic breast cancer.
It’s time to bring clarity to what a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer really means, and it’s time for all of us to start saying the words.
Only then, will we be more successful at directing resources specifically aimed at finding better treatments and outcomes for those living with it today and for those who will find themselves living with it tomorrow and ultimately, for preventing metastasis in the first place.
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Why do you think there is such hesitancy to use the words, metastatic breast cancer?
Were you confused by the phrase, complications of breast cancer, in the reports on the death of Cokie Roberts?
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