Thanking Your Lucky Stars

I’ve never met Mark McKinnon, the Austin political media guru.  But I’ve always heard he’s a good guy — even if he did help to bring us eight years of George W. Bush.

Today, though, McKinnon moves from the political to the highly personal as he writes about the “gift” of his wife’s cancer in the Daily Beast.  (I hope to God he didn’t write that headline himself.)  In some ways, it’s a warm, touching story about a lucky guy who grows up and realizes the important things in life — you know, love and family — when his wife is diagnosed with a deadly form of cancer.

In too many other ways, though, it’s self-congratulatory bullshit and it made me want to scream.

The essay starts out with gratuitous references to McKinnon’s many successes, replete with famous names.  Then, after you wade through a trove of the prominent and well-known and reviled, it moves on to the heart of the matter.  McKinnon’s wife is diagnosed with a highly aggressive form of cancer with only a 15 percent survival rate.  Being a fighter, though, a “Lance Armstrong in skirts,” she raises her chin and says she feels sorry for the other 85 percent.  Because, you see, she has a great attitude and she’s going to live.

I’ve heard that McKinnon’s wife, too, is a lovely person.  I’m happy that she survived a deadly form of cancer — for her sake, her husband’s, their two children’s.

But doesn’t her husband understand what he’s saying when he writes about her miraculous survival the way he does?  Maybe he thinks he’s writing only about his wife, but he’s not.  He’s also implicitly referring to the other, pitiable 85 percent who didn’t make it.  And it seems to be their fault, since they weren’t as wonderful, as determined, as combative as his wife.  They didn’t have her attitude, they weren’t like Lance Armstrong in drag, they ended up dead, tough luck.

I’m one of the lucky myself — even if my odds were closer to fifty-fifty —  so I take this very personally.  It’s personal because I lived and so many of my friends did not.

Let me tell you about them: All in all, they were better people than I am.  They went through repeated biopsies, surgeries, chemotherapies, radiations with incredible, valiant resolve.  They didn’t feel sorry for themselves.  They just kept pushing and doing anything they could to survive.

Some went through excruciating rounds of experimental therapies that made them violently ill.  You hear about some of the “miracles” that occasionally result from these therapies; what you usually don’t hear is that the vast majority of them don’t work.

But their attitudes — God, they were incredible, indomitable!  They were some of the flintiest, most resilient people I’ve ever known in my life.  They “deserved” to live, but it didn’t matter.  They died, anyway — my friends Martha and Katherine and Clare and Roxy and so many others.  And Donna, who moved heaven and earth to live to see her three children grow up; her oldest child came to see her in the hospital, dressed up in his high-school graduation cap and gown, a few days before she died.

But McKinnon doesn’t seem understand it’s possible to write about his wife’s survival, to celebrate it and her and her tremendous spirit without impugning others who weren’t so fortunate.  Cancer is complicated, wily, unpredictable.  It helps to have good health insurance, supportive family and friends.  But attitude isn’t the panacea McKinnon seems to think it is.  He says he’s a lucky person, but it’s clear to me he has no idea what a great role luck, sheer luck, played in his wife’s survival.

It’s a wonderful thing to be lucky.  But it’s tragic and short-sighted and insulting to others who weren’t so fortunate to take credit for luck and call it attitude.  Life and cancer aren’t fair and they aren’t barometers of character.  Maybe someday, McKinnon will mature enough to realize that.

(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)

See another of my favorite posts about survival of the fittest doesn’t always apply

31 comments… add one
  • Amen, Ruth.
    Well said.

  • Good for you. This is outrageous. Surviving cancer is not just about your resilience! I’m sure the friends you lost were very tough and determined. This sounds like a very distorted view of the situation and I’m glad you’ve stood up and said so!

  • YES!  Well said! Boy.. I’m so pissed off right now..

  • Holy shit! McKinnon’s wife gets cancer and his piece is all about me, me, me, I, I, I, and an occasional myself.  Sounds to me like fate should have taken a good strong hold on that lucky stick and beaten the crap out of this self-absorbed twit.

  • Wow, Ruth. You should totally send that to the Daily Beast. I bet they’ll publish it.
    I’ve experienced cancer form the perspective of a daughter and my father wanted to live more than anyone I’ve ever known. As much as attitude and medicine and the cycles of the moon and whatever else helps us, in the end, it’s just not up to us.

  • So well said.  We all speak at times without engaging our brains.  I find a lot of the religious have the opinion their best bud is God and will take care of them.  No thought for the ones dying who might also have faith.

  • Oh, Ruth, I am pissed now. REally pissed. I too, lost friends and let me tell you, their “attitudes” and “fight” were there all the way. They’d do anything to survive – anything. Somehow despite this all they lost their lives. It happens, despite best intentions.
    Bernie Siegal said all this years and years ago, too, when he professed that cancer patients can “think themselves well.” If only it were that simple. If only.

  • Cindy A Link

    We have an emergency email chain for our neighborhood, which I recently used to let everyone know not to drive down the street by the airport that the police blocked off because of the suicide pilot that took off from there and crashed into the IRS building in Austin.

    A neighbor responded that he thought it was the stress of health care reform and all the taxes it would cause that made the guy do it.  He said he thought people with cancer, diabetes, and heart disease had self-inflicted illnesses caused by poor diets and lifestyles.  And therefore, they did not deserve health care coverage.

    I wrote a long, angry email, then recognized how easy it was for him to distress me and how little good it would do to try to reason with him.  So I deleted my email and his message and called my husband to ask what the neighbor looked like.  I want to make sure to avoid this crazy jackass.

    I shall add Mark McKinnon to that list.

  • Ruth, I haven’t read the original piece by Mark McKinnon. I just can’t.
    I agree with Almost Slowfood: Send this post to the Daily Beast.
    I’m getting so sick of outlets — online and otherwise — publishing provocative stuff just for the sake of driving traffic with little regard for the people they offend along the way.
    Good for you for taking a stand. But then I’m sure your friends, the living and the ones who didn’t make it, wouldn’t expect anything less.

  • Winston Link

    I read Mark’s story.   And I grasp your point of view totally.  But now  what I really want to know are the feelings of Annie– THE ACTUAL SURVIVOR.  She can’t have endured it all within a cocoon– oblivious to all the others in her plight.

  • Agreed, Ruth.  The people I have known who died of cancer — and there have been way too many of them — wanted desperately to live. They fought like heroes and endured incredible suffering to stay with their loved ones a little longer. They had hundreds if not thousands of people praying for them. Yet they were among the unlucky ones who did not make it. Attitude means a lot, yes, but it’s not necesarily going to save you. One guy I know fully expected to die of his cancer, but guess what? He lived, and he’s fine now. It’s good luck or bad, that’s all. And miracles, sadly, don’t happen nearly as often as we wish they would. 

  • Well written and well said.

  • I do not intend to read Mark McKinnon’s piece because I know how angry it would make me.  After a wonderful three-day visit, I just said goodbye to a dear friend who recently lost her husband to pancreatic cancer. He fought until the end and managed to stay alive four years longer than doctors predicted, refusing to leave his children, my friend’s step-children.  Their mother had also died of pancreatic cancer.  It’s a dreadful disease.
    I hope researchers figure out what causes cancer.  Here on Cape Cod, where I live, we have a breast cancer rate 20% higher than the rest of Massachusetts.  Silent Spring has been studying Cape Cod dust and water.  In the dust, they have found residue from DDT, banned over thirty years ago, sprayed on cranberry bogs.  I believe we need to rethink all the unregulated synthetic chemicals that have gone into the environment since then. The EPA, under Obama, is trying.  I hope everyone who has survived cancer, or who knows someone who had or currently has cancer, will support the EPA’s new policy.

  • Hilda Link

    Ruth, thank you for expressing this better than I ever could have. And I agree w/ the person who suggested you send this to the Daily Beast. Please do!

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you for expressing so well this putting on of guilt and failure in the cancer world. My Dad died of cancer after a five year battle. Now my brother-in-law has just been diagnosed with a very aggressive lung cancer that has spread to his brain. Survival should not be waved as as if it’s an indication of character.

  • Oh…like Sarah, I can’t bring myself to read the original post.  I have a good friend battling cancer now and this sort of thing makes me feel sick.But I am glad you wrote this. I hope and wish it would help him come to his senses, but I’m guessing not. Sigh.

  • Craig Link

    Guys like that have senses of entitlement that stretch from running over you on the freeway ramp, yelling one way conversations into cell phones, paying absolutely no attention to waiting in lines,  and treating waitstaff as servants
    His poor wife deserves prayers for more than her recovery.

  • Donna M. Link

    I agree with the “well said” remarks and fully agree.   That kind of thinking is so sad and magical and damning…

  • Thank you for expressing everyone’s anger. I am just terribly, terribly sad.  My brother in law recently died, despite his good attitude and bravery. My sister is now a widow at too young an age despite her strong belief in God and doing everything she could to help her husband in his fight.  How sad that throughout his wife’s struggle Mark McKinnon never saw any of the men women and CHILDREN who were suffering in the cancer wards. How sad that he did not know that 15% survival means 85% dead.
    Please send your thoughts to the newspaper.

  • I’ve often wondered where the notion of the fighter came from in terms of illness. When you stop and think about it, it doesn’t add up. Many many others will tell you that surrendering rather than fighting is what led them to be healed/cured and their bodies to be restored to health again.

  • This article sounds infuriating. I don’t want to read it. My FIL has cancer right now and it cuts very close to home.

  • Lee Pugh Link

    Thank you for tackling this subject head on with such a well-written article.  LSP

  • Hi Ruth,
    Thanks so much for emailing me about this. You did a good thing and inspired me to be bitchier. See my take on it on my blog. Good point above about him writing only about himself. 

  • I LOVE this piece, Ruth. I’ve actually written on the same subject in my role at; I wrote a piece on 10 things not to say to someone with cancer that talked about not saying things that make someone feel as if they just “think positive” or visualize the cancer vanishing, or some other hooey, they can beat the cancer. Making someone feel as if their cancer’s progression is their fault is just adding insult to injury.

  • Paula Link

    Another vote for submitting this to the Daily Beast. I don’t agree with every columnist they print, but most are quality writers, as you are. They could use your voice there.

  • I agree – attitude only gets you so far. But, to play devil’s advocate, I do admire a guy who would describe his wife as “Lance Armstrong in skirts.” Maybe he got a little carried away in his love, respect, and adoration for his wife, but every patient deserves a spouse who believes in them that much.

  • So well said, Ruth, and your tributes to your friends who died was very moving.

    Part of the problem is the words we use for cancer:  it’s aggressive and invasive.  We fight against it; our friends and loved ones die after a long struggle.  Inevitably, I suppose, our metaphors teach us that anyone who prevails in the struggle must be unusually strong.  On the whole we don’t like to admit that we live or die by luck. 

    But do not fall into the same trap on the other side: those who died were not “better people” than you who survived any more than those who lived.

  • Steve Link

    Let the congregation say again, “Amen!”

  • So well said.  I think it all boils down to this peculiar notion that people have that they are in control.  If they are well it’s because they lived right.  If they are rich it’s because they are hard working and deserving.  If people are poor or sick its because they are lazy or have a bad attitude.

  • I read the first page of the piece until he wrote  “But one day my luck ran short. I learned my wife Annie had a deadly form of cancer which she was unlikely to survive.”
    That’s right. HIS luck ran out when SHE got cancer. Jerk.

  • CindyD Link

    Dear Ruth,
    Congratulations, you hit another one out of the ball park.  I survived breast cancer and my mother died from it because of the difference in our health care insurance and the quality of our doctors.  Mine were good; her’s sucked.  Thank you for taking this ignorant man (the kindest thing I could think to write) to task.  Anyone that self absorbed is unlikely to listen and learn but we must all continue to stand up against ignorance in this arena and so many more.  My favorite cartoonist Stephan Pastis (Pearls Before Swine) has a “box o’morons” that often appears in his strip.  I think he needs to draw a bigger box.

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