Why Emma Keller’s & Bill Keller’s Articles Completely Missed the Mark

I was first drawn to the blog of Lisa Adams about three years ago shortly after I began blogging myself. I was immediately drawn to her style of writing and to the topics she chose. Lisa and I both write about breast cancer. Lisa and I both write about grief and loss. Lisa and I have similar views on various hot-button issues in breast cancer advocacy. And of course, now Lisa also writes about her metastatic breast cancer experience.

I have no idea if Lisa reads my blog on any regular basis, but I definitely have been following hers for quite some time because she’s a wonderful writer who writes from her heart. I do follow her on Twitter and she follows me, though we don’t interact a great deal.

I hesitated to write this post in part because I thought Emma Keller’s recent piece, “Forget funeral selfies. What are the ethics of tweeting a terminal illness?”, published in The Guardian, (the piece was taken down due to investigation, yeah, like we believe that), actually potentially raised a valid question or two. Ms. Keller may have started out with good intentions, or at least valid questions in mind, but she completely missed the mark. She screwed up big time.


She took what might have been a couple of valid topics to discuss and instead turned them into a personal attack on Lisa Adams, or at least that’s how many viewed it. Taken further, it became viewed by many (me included) as an attack on others who share their cancer experiences online as well.

Though the first sentence of her piece, “Lisa Adams is dying of breast cancer,” was wrong, out of line, crass and mean spirited, raising the question, Is tweeting a terminal illness ethical? (yes!) is completely legit in my view. Almost any topic can be up for discussion. Unfortunately, Ms. Keller did not choose discussing this particular topic, but rather instead chose zeroing in on one woman’s tweets and as a result, her article immediately became judgmental and nasty. Big mistake.

Next, she attacked Lisa for tweeting too much, but at the same time, not enough. In her eyes, Lisa tweeted too much about dark personal pain-related stuff and not enough about her kids and family and how they were doing. Really?

As someone who writes about very personal matters on my blog, I understand this completely. I have only scratched the surface of many topics because I always try to be mindful of the privacy of my family. Lisa’s tweets are hers. She can share whatever she chooses to. Again, Ms. Keller was out of line. Way out.

Thirdly – Ms. Keller seemed to go after the medical care Lisa has been receiving. She seemed to be suggesting that there is something questionable about Lisa’s stellar care, access to clinical trials and/or about the funds Lisa is raising for cancer research at the top-notch facility where she’s being treated, New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She raised questions about the unknown cost of it all. Again, a valid opportunity was missed. Disparity is a huge deal in health care, but it certainly has nothing to do with the care Lisa Adams is or is not receiving. The effort should always be to raise up the quality of care for those who are presently receiving less than stellar care, not to put down someone who is receiving it. Another blunder in my book.

Fourth – Social media is a huge deal to more and more cancer patients because so often it’s where we communicate, interact, learn from and support one another. The article was an attack on all of us who engage through such venues. Another huge mis-step. And as the Keller’s quickly discovered, this cancer community is a tightly-knit group; we’re in this together – online or not. When one of us gets knocked around, plenty of others are ready and willing to rise to the occasion and speak out.

There were more issues with the article, but as I said, it’s been taken down and my memory fails me.

Bottom line is, it missed the mark completely and readers tore it to shreds and rightfully so.

Enter Bill Keller, a former executive editor of the New York Times, and his equally off-the-mark article, “Heroic Measures,” which surfaced a few days later. And yes, he’s married to the author of the first-mentioned piece.

Again, Mr. Keller’s intentions might have been good ones. I try not to judge a person’s intentions. Primarily though, it seems he was coming to his wife’s aid and trying his best to save face, well actually, her face.

He failed and ended up doing more harm than good.


He simply had no idea what he was talking about. He clearly had not done his research and as a journalist, obviously this is a major no-no. I’m not a trained journalist, but even I always try my best to get the facts right. And Mr. Keller clearly did not. Sure it was an opinion piece, but you still need to be accurate in information relayed and he was not.

For starters, anyone who  follows Lisa’s blog knows her feelings on the use of war metaphors. Anyone who reads her blog knows he got that and whole lot more all wrong. In addition, he went on to compare Lisa’s cancer situation with that of his ill (and now deceased) father-in-law’s; again, totally off-base comparisons were made between the two very different situations. Also, I couldn’t help but notice that both Kellers seem misinformed as to what palliative care means.

Mr. Keller’s piece was so off the mark, I won’t even bother to say more as this post is already getting lengthy. You can read it for yourself if you care to and make your own judgments.

Even with all these factors, I still hesitated to write this post for another reason that was hard to put my finger on. I kept thinking about all the women out there with metastatic disease who do not have an online presence like Lisa Adams does. I kept asking myself, what about them? Is all this commotion helping them? Undoubtedly, it’s sending more readers Lisa’s way, which is great for Lisa, but for those other women, not so much.

Then it hit me.

Trailblazers/leaders do often garner lots of attention and yes, criticism as well. And Lisa Adams is a tweeting trailblazer. She’s been tweeting for years. Yes, she’s tweeted over 165,00 tweets. Heck, Lisa can probably tweet with one hand or in her sleep. She’s good at it. And yes, some of her tweets have become dark and more serious of late because she’s dealing with metastatic disease progression and has been hospitalized for two weeks for crying out loud! It’s completely logical. Everyone who reads Lisa’s blog knows she’s candid and avoids the just stay positive BS.

Most importantly, Lisa has said repeatedly that one of her main goals has always been to share as candidly as possible about her cancer experience and also about the full spectrum of the disease through her platforms, including Twitter. This is exactly why her readers and followers read her stuff and more importantly, why they genuinely care about her. People crave and respond to truth.

This is also exactly why people are learning a great deal from her writing. Lisa Adams is doing her part and more to continue bringing the realities of living with metastatic disease out into the open. (It seems the Kellers might prefer a more quiet approach).

In the scheme of things, Lisa’s approach helps everyone, with or without cancer, and with or without an online presence. 

So yes, the Keller’s both screwed up. They completely missed opportunities to discuss legitimate topics, but instead chose quite a different path –  one that quickly took them both in the wrong direction(s).

Perhaps they could still fix things. Apologies can go a long way.

Lisa Adams deserves an apology.

Perhaps we all do.

Do you have thoughts to share?

How do you feel about tweets and online sharing about illness, terminal or otherwise?

What was your reaction to either or both of the Keller articles?





26 thoughts to “Why Emma Keller’s & Bill Keller’s Articles Completely Missed the Mark”

  1. Unfortunately the Guardian article was taken down before I could get a chance to read it. But I read Marie’s blog about it to get the gist. It sounded completely off the mark. And the husband’s article was equally despicable. When we can’t write from our hearts, no matter what the disease, then we are left with sanitized versions that still won’t please everybody. The bottom line is that we can’t please everyone no matter what we do. If these journalists are uncomfortable with patients like me writing about their metastatic breast cancer experiences firsthand, then they can choose not to read. It’s as simple as that. Judging is just not appropriate. Thanks for highlighting this travesty so a wider audience will be apprised of what darkly critical journalism can proceed from unexpected corners.

    1. Jan, As I mentioned in my post, I think there are valid issues open for discussion. However, singling out one person was just nasty. And you’re so right about not pleasing everyone – just not possible is it? Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. This post is spot on. Both of the Kellers were so off the mark. I am glad they took Emma Keller’s piece down “pending investigation” and they should do the same with Bill Kellers at The New York Times and include an apology to Lisa. Lisa is sharing so much important information and she writes so well. I was particularly offended by the idea that they implied she should not be on Twitter and should just be quiet and die. The pieces were inaccurate and unethical. I am especially annoyed with the New York Times because in October they wanted women with breast cancer to share their stories. It’s time they do some responsible journalism and expose the truth about this disease. When did journalists become bullies on social media? Thanks Nancy for this great post. Sending you tons of cyberhugs! xoxo – Susan

    1. Susan, I wasn’t aware about the NYT asking for breast cancer stories back in October. I guess they prefer a certain kind. I appreciate your feedback and the cyberhugs!

    1. Caroline, Thanks for sharing the link to Emma Keller’s piece via But Doctor I hate Pink. If anyone is interested, click on Ann’s here it is link.

  3. The Kellers called out epatient bloggers, specifically Lisa, as potentially unethical, and wound up in a journalism ethics sh*t-show of their own making. Their yawning silence since their cluster bombs dropped is telling. I’m very afraid that they think they are superior to those who disagree, the hoi polloi who are living out loud on line.

    Of course, it’s so very non-U to talk about death, dear, don’t you think? It’s just not DONE.

    I vote we make them go live in Downton Abbey, as the butler and the housekeeper. That way they’ll stop bothering any real people …

  4. Somewhere nestled among the inaccurate reporting, the snide commentary, and crass insensitivity of the Kellers, there exists the germ of an idea – the potential for an open and honest debate about society’s attitudes to how we live and die today. But that conversation is something best left to writers more eloquent and thoughtful than the Kellers.

    1. Marie, That’s one point I was trying to make in my post. There certainly are points open for discussion, but somehow they got buried. Thanks for all you’ve added to this discussion and for sharing my piece on JBBC.

  5. I feel like all of us were deeply disturbed by these op-eds. It’s irresponsible to use your position of power to pick on those in a desperate position. Bottom line — Lisa is trying to open peoples’ eyes. She’s a role model. When I started blogging after my own diagnosis, her example was very inspirational. I think the Kellers either have serious issues with their own mortality, or they knew what they were doing and are purposely gunning for publicity. My response is here: http://zenofmetastasis.blogspot.com/2014/01/a-tale-of-two-kellers.html

    1. Kevin, I hadn’t really thought about that other motive you mention. I’ve been reading that mostly they feel misunderstood and I think that’s what they choose to believe. Thanks for sharing your response/link with us, Kevin.

  6. Although most people will see the Kellers as insensitive if not ignorant busy-bodies, it is heartbreaking to think that their arrogant ramblings might have made cancer patient’s lives more difficult than they already are. There are many people who find it difficult to talk about thier cancer and tweeting or blogging can become thier one comfortable way of expressing themselves. Now,the Kellers have tainted those avenues and I fear that some cancer patients may just crawl back into a shell of quitetude. Shame on the Kellers for butting into other people’s trauma and making life worse for others.

    1. Scat, I’m not sure they have the power to silence anyone from just two articles. I sure hope not anyway. That would be really sad if someone was silenced due to this type of journalism. Thanks for sharing that insight.

  7. Three short comments:
    1)Thank you for posting. I always appreciate your perspective.
    2)Why can’t we all just keep our noses out of other people’s medical decisions?!? Is this so hard? It’s the patient-doctor relationship, not the patient-doctor-media relationship.
    3)If you don’t like what someone is tweeting (or blogging) that’s why the ‘unfollow’ button exists.

  8. While Ms. Keller’s essay was unusually harsh and judgmental, the cancer patient judging how others do cancer phenomena is sadly, not new. It was his essay that sent me over the edge, simply because of the phrase “standard-bearer for an approach to cancer that honors the warrior” when she has rejected warrior metaphors! I actually do not read Adam’s tweets and only recently began reading her blog (thanks to a link you recently posted). It took me VERY little effort to understand that she rejects battle metaphors–and I am far from a professional like Keller, so he has no excuse for his lack of basic groundwork. I doubt the apology to Adams will happen. But he should be reprimanded (I do not care that he used to be the exec. editor) for this glaring error. Another Times writer alluded to his mistake (and stopped short of the reprimand) in a post that maybe got lost in all the articles written on this–but it is not enough for me.

    1. Cancer Curmudgeon, You’re right, there’s nothing new in the judging is there? I agree with everything you’re saying here. I’m not holding my breath waiting for an apology either, but one is certainly warranted. Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts.

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