June 30, 2007

"Died ... after a long and remarkably courageous struggle with cancer..."

I feel sorry for the man who died and sympathetic to his family, so I won't name him here. I only want to comment on the phrase quoted above.

Old Onion headline:
Loved Ones Recall Local Man's Cowardly Battle With Cancer
Sample text:
According to [Russ Kunkel's] personal physician, Dr. James Wohlpert, the type of cancer Russ had generally takes at least four months to advance to the terminal stage. But because of what he described as a "remarkable lack of fighting spirit," the disease consumed him in less than one.

"It's rare that you see someone give up that quickly and completely," Wohlpert said. "Cancer is a powerful disease, but most people can at the very least delay the spread of it by maintaining a positive outlook and mental attitude. This, however, was not the case with Russ.
Cancer inflicts terrible suffering. But you don't step forward to endure it in place of others. It happens, and you do what you can. Is one victim really more "courageous" than another? What does it mean to be "remarkably courageous"? What unnamed persons are you implying were courageous, but actually significantly less courageous than the newly departed? And does anyone ever not get credit for courage? We're bound to the script: cancer, therefore courage. There's never a Russ Kunkel.

I think you know why. It's why you laugh so much when you read about Russ. It's because we -- if we don't already have terminal cancer -- have so much anxiety about the prospect of becoming the next victim. We're comparing the dead one, who behaved like everyone else under the circumstances, with the vision of ourselves discovering that is our fate.


George M. Spencer said...

When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools...

....I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like moulten lead.

—Lear, IV, vi-vii

steve simels said...

Sweet jeebus, that's sixteen pastel shades of banal.

Unbelievable you find it necessary to post it where everybody can see.

Oh, and BTW -- very tacky of both the Onion and you to use the name Russ Kunkel.

Russ Kunkel is of course the great studio drummer and as far as I know still very much alive.

vet66 said...

For most of us getting cancer becomes more likely the older we get. The secret is early detection and treatment.

Another secret is attitude. Joel was inspirational in his dealing with his cancer. His attitude was infectious as his humor and sharp wit extended his life to the max. Never looking for pity, he dealt with it and did the best he could with what time he had left.

His notes to his son, in book form, inspired untold numbers of others facing an uncertain future.

GOD Speed, Joel!
Rest In Peace!

Thomas said...

This reminded me of one of my favorite exchanges on the Simpsons. Bart placed a two-radio in a well and pretended to be a trapped little boy. Eventually the whole town to rallies behind him. While saying grace, Marge asks God to help the boy which causes Bart to start laughing:

Homer: That Timmy is a real hero!

Lisa: How do you mean, Dad?

Homer: Well, he fell down a well, and... he can't get out.

Lisa: How does that make him a hero?

Homer: Well, that's more than you did!

ricpic said...

Id fold like a cheap camera.

Ann Althouse said...

If there is a real Russ Kunkel, he probably knows the people at The Onion and liked the use of his name. That's how they work. They actually used my name once -- I know one of the writers -- but they misunderstood what my last name was (because it's different from my sons').

dbp said...

Hi Ann,

Labels: comedy, death, language, medicine

It is posts like this one today that keep me comming back!


KCFleming said...

I prefer the way folks in the 17 and 1800s talked about it. Rather than "courage", they spoke of 'bearing suffering with equanimity and grace', a Christian concept. Such people were honored and their way of handling suffering without complaint was meant to serve as an example for others.

"Courage" is along the same lines. It captures the spirit of stoicism in the face of a struggle you cannot win, and may have already lost before even striking the first retaliatory blow. Under such circumstances, it is hard to keep going, to get up every day and fight again a losing battle and remain a good person, or get even better. It is a definition of courage because its selflessness is expressed in the shielding of others from your pain.

And yes, it is a kind of battle, a perilous and painful journey of the soul, at least it feels like one to those affected. No, it is not common; I have seen its opposite repeatedly. Suicide is its antithesis. Whining, rage, meanness, and demanding behaviors are also more common than stoicism.

Family descriptions like "remarkably courageous" are less borne of anxiety than serving witness to a grace bestowed, a pride in how a loved one died. We no longer permit ourselves to suggest that some people are in fact better examples of dealing with suffering than others, but it's true. And I really think family descriptions like this are many times, if truthful (for I think it is abused in an The Office sort of way, and overused, like "closure") telling the world that a sort of miracle has occurred, and they don't have the right words to say it.

P.S. I still think the Onion piece was a riot.

Ann Althouse said...

Pogo: "Whining, rage, meanness, and demanding behaviors are also more common than stoicism."

Still, I bet the obituaries say "courage." And this stoicism seems to be less courage than wanting to spare family and friends from being included in the pain and fear.

Also, I wouldn't assume that people who choose suicide lack courage.

KCFleming said...

Re; I bet the obituaries say "courage."
More among the younger set. Not so much with old people. Yes, it is applied to the uncourageous, so it, like "closure" has become a cliche. But still I find it useful, for it admits that the goal is stoic selflessness rather than grasping, mewling,and flailing behaviors.

Re: I wouldn't assume that people who choose suicide lack courage.
I have yet to encounter a family member who says the suicide was a courageous act. Most remain pretty pissed about it.

Randy said...

Suicide: A permanent solution to a temporary problem.

Randy said...

Pogo: FWIW, it has been my experience that most obituaries refer to someone's passing after a "struggle with cancer," usually preceded by "long," with "courageous" a somewhat distant second.

Ann Althouse said...

Ronin: "Suicide: A permanent solution to a temporary problem."

But terminal cancer isn't a temporary problem.

KCFleming said...


I agree. I'm tempted to write my own obituary, telling of my brief arm-wrestle with death, where I ended up throwing the fight for $10 and a pack of smokes.

jimbino said...

Just once I'd like to read about a person's being "gently raped and murdered." What passes for journalism today is beneath contempt.

Randy said...

But terminal cancer isn't a temporary problem.

I agree. But then I know more than one person who was told they had terminal cancer and lived for years after that. Unusual, I know, but still....

How many AIDS sufferers gave up and committed suicide just before the 3-drug cocktail became available? I know many people still alive today who were quite literally at death's door at that moment.

That said, I watched a woman die of ALS over the course of 35 very long months. She made it quite clear that she wanted heroic measures to keep her alive and she struggled mightily against the inevitable progression of the disease. If it were me, I'd hope someone would "accidentally" stand on the oxygen supply tube long about month 20, when there was no way for me to end it myself.

Trumpit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ann Althouse said...

Ronin: I agree with the choice to struggle. My mother lived many years after the point where it seemed that the cancer surgery and other treatment was cruel and unavailing.

But I knew someone else with the same condition who chose not to go through the treatment, which meant that he died very soon after that.

Which of these two was more "courageous"? I think they were both human beings who found themselves in a terrible situation and made their choice on how to deal with it.

Some pressure was put on me to talk to the man about my mother's survival in an effort to persuade him to go through rigorous surgery and radiation therapy, which he probably would not survive. He was a very old and highly esteemed man, and I thought this effort at persuasion was presumptuous and disrespectful.

The idea that he had not thought it through properly was absurd, and in any case, I think my mother survived because of her intense (and almost bizarre) will to live. The old man did not have that. Rather, he had accepted death.

I don't see any basis to say she was better than him. They were both decently good.

KCFleming said...

Re: "Rather, he had accepted death."

The courage is not in undergoing treatment or not, but in dying honorably. My grandpa did the same thing, rejecting even ordinary treatments as extraordinary.

Neither was committing suicide.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

Lest we forget: Althouse laughs at death.

I'll bet she cries at weddings, though.

Ann Althouse said...

I don't approve of suicide for a terminal condition. Let me be clear. I'm only saying people who make that choice are not necessarily lacking in courage. We like to say it's the coward's way out and so forth because we want to discourage something with think is wrong. (Hmmm... "discourage" is an interesting word there!)

Randy said...

I thought this effort at persuasion was presumptuous and disrespectful.

I agree completely.

Which of these two was more "courageous"?

The idea that one would be considerd more courageous than the other is appalling.

I don't see any basis to say she was better than him.

I don't either.

rhhardin said...

A local college president long ago developed brain cancer. His last words, reported by the student paper, were ``I'm going to beat this, Nancy.'' Then he died, one presumes from the story.

It was, if so, a nice instance of the academic's belief in mind over matter.

Pilots die after a short struggle with gravity. Their most popular last words, according to cockpit voice recorders, are ``Oh shit.''

No mind over matter there.

Peter deVries recommends preparing your last words and telling somebody what they will be, in case you're out of your mind when the time comes. Goethe managed ``More light.'' Nelson said ``Kiss me, Hardy.'' Thoreau came up with ``Moose,'' and then ``Indians.'' Einstein said something in German, and the nurse didn't speak speak German. Planning pays off, people.

John Kindley said...

I think everything Ann has said here in these comments is very well put and on the mark.

"Whining, rage, meanness, and demanding behaviors are also more common than stoicism."

I'm reminded of what Adm. Stockdale, Medal of Honor winner, said in his book "In Love and War" about his experiences of torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam: that virtually everyone, including himself, had a breaking point under which they would reveal information, and that he himself revealed information under torture. The best one could do is to hold out as long as possible, make it as difficult for the interrogators as possible, minimize the information given, and not let the evidence of one's own weakness totally crush one's spirit and will to resist and fight.

I think this points to a reason to be very circumspect about judging anyone's actions under the duress of intense suffering and fear.

ice160 said...

A few years ago I read an obituary here in Madison where the deceased had won "a long and courageous battle with doctors".

KCFleming said...

John Kindley,

well put.

Modern Otter said...

Every time I hear about courageous battles with cancer, I think about Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio, who died of lymphoma in 1991. Guard had played football for Stanford in the '50s, and in letter to one of the folk music magazines, he wrote about his illness:

What's it like to have lymphoma, some people half-wonder. Well, I used to joke that playing USC in football was like dealing with cancer; now I understand that dealing with cancer is like playing USC, which gives me lots of encouragement, because USC does lose occasionally though it has a tendency to beat you up anyway.

I've always thought that was a pretty "courageous" thing to say.

blake said...

Wow, almost made it without an irrelevant trolling on a not-even tangential subject. (Why do I suspect many Althouse trolls have bladder control problems?)

It is possible to be extraordinarily courageous when battling cancer, at least theoretically/theatrically. See Wit.

And I disagree, "terminal cancer", like all diseases, is temporary.

Maxine Weiss said...

"I think everything Ann has said here in these comments is very well put and on the mark."--John Kindley

John, you're new around here. Look around before you make these rash judgements.

In the context of the entire blog, Althouse has shown very little empathy, especially towards the victims of Virginia Tech.

Joel Siegel merits a post, but not a single Virginia Tech victim deserves the same, and were those students not as "courageous" ?

But of course, Virginia Tech hits too close to home, so it falls into one of those "idiosyncratic" things Althouse has nothing to say about.


amba said...

I love you lately, Pogo.

My favorite last words are those of the boxer Max Baer: "Oh God, here I go!"

Maxine Weiss said...

It's much more tragic when a child gets struck down, because of all that will never be.

Joel Siegel led a full life. He had an extraordinary career.

The victims of Virginia Tech never got to do any of that.

Yet, Althouse doesn't see it that way--- going by number of posts she's done on various victims.

Love, Maxine

Cedarford said...

We have somehow allowed journalism to affix "courageous"/"Heroic" to:

1. Any victim who suffers a lot.

2. Any person, no matter who - purely by a job title that entails some journalist-perceived risk. The 8 heroic detal tech soldiers in a Georgia dental hospital. The cop who died "courageously" when his car skidded on ice, hit a tree near his house while off-duty.

3. Any person who holds a job journalists see as helping others. The "heroic teacher" teaching inner city "'yutes" history. The courageous social worker. The heroic doctor who charges 80,000 for 2 hours of bypass surgery.

I hope we can "move on" and "achieve CLOSURE" from this practice so "the healing can start".

Meanwhile, The Onion and cowardly cancer sufferers are the next best thing.

amba said...

Life would be so flavorless without The Onion.

ricpic said...

Although I agree that it is unseemly to, in effect, grade the manner in which people die, it is also true that the vigor, or decadence, of a society can accurately be gauged by the prevalence of defiance toward, or philosophical acceptance of, death, in that society.

John Kindley said...

"John, you're new around here. Look around before you make these rash judgements."

No, Maxine, I'm not new around here. I've been around long enough to read, or skip over impatiently, dozens of your rash judgments over the last few years.

PeterP said...

I've lived with cancer - more accurately sarcoma - for seven years. Nothing brave about that.

Likelihood I'll die of it somewhen. Nothing brave about that either.

Doesn't half ease the pension problem mind you. How brave is that?

amba said...

We do have a problem with conflating "victims" and "heroes," as note 9/11: there were many references to the "heroes" who died on that day just by virtue of their dying. There were indeed "heroes" -- the firemen who were going up the stairs when everyone else was rushing down, the people who refused to abandon a disabled colleague, maybe even the people (I can hardly even say this) who took another person's hand to jump. It takes more than just losing one's life to make a hero.

Mr.Murder said...

Big Russ was part the greatest generation...

Maxine Weiss said...

You know why?

It's Althouse's hairstyle.

The shorter her hair got, the nastier I became. Something snapped, and the short hair gave me license to say all kinds of hypercritical, negative stuff.

If Althouse would simply arm herself with the longer hair, grow it at least to her shoulders, she would again be protected, and I would never again have a negative thought.

Women with longer hair gain more respect. When a woman chops off her hair, the gauntlet is thrown down.

(Not that I know what a "gauntlet is" or where that expression comes from, mind you.)

John Kindley said...

amba said: "It takes more than just losing one's life to make a hero."

And to paraphrase Patton: "I don't want you to die for your country. I want you to make the other poor dumb bastard die for his country."

I submit that making another poor dumb bastard die for his country, just cause your country tells you to, by itself, is not heroism either.

Cedarford said...

John Kidley -

I submit that making another poor dumb bastard die for his country, just cause your country tells you to, by itself, is not heroism either.

I submit there is a reason why soldiers who do their duty and far more in the face of enemy fire are accorded the tremendous success as "true heroes" by virtue of the honors they received that the "faux heroes" like courageous, fighting ACLU lawyers and "gritty" schoolteachers and cancer sufferers are not.

Fighting wars is ugly business. Being in combat arms even in peacetime is hard dangerous business at times.
The only thing uglier than fighting a war is losing one against a ruthless, barbarous, murderous foe..

NDC said...
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NDC said...
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mythusmage said...


New Jersey Man Prolongs Family's Suffering by Stoically Accepting His Gruesome Fate

KCFleming said...

P.S. to amba:
I'll live on that for a month, truly.

KLDAVIS said...

Is this the Onion article you were hinting at?