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May 22nd, 2008
11:01 AM ET

Kennedy: Public pain, public pressure?

Cate Vojdik
360° Writer

The pictures showing Senator Ted Kennedy surrounded by his family in a Boston hospital catapulted me back eight years to a hospital in Michigan. Thankfully, there were no cameras around when my 75-year-old father, a lifelong smoker, learned that he had Stage IV lung cancer, a terminal diagnosis.

On that spring day, my mother, sister and I sat next to Dad’s hospital bed, numb with sadness, trying to absorb what the doctors, who formed a ring of white coats around us, were saying. I can’t imagine being in the glare of the media spotlight at such a time.

In the photos released Tuesday Kennedy and his loved ones are smiling, putting up a brave front. I can’t know, of course, what went on in the senator’s hospital room during his stay but I have a pretty good idea.

Hearing a doctor tell your father he has life-threatening cancer feels like a punch in the gut. Once you hear “cancer” everything else goes soft, as if someone has hit the mute button. Ordinary time is suspended. A blur of tests and treatment plans begins. Life as you know it ends, even as you try to act like everything will be okay.

It’s natural to put on a brave face, to rally for your loved one. You desperately want to reassure him when you see fear in his eyes. For most of us, this is a painful private exercise.

The news of Senator Kennedy’s brain cancer set off an immediate outpouring of concern and support. Kennedy’s Senate colleagues, visibly shaken, made statements on camera. Senator Byrd wept at the front of the Senate chamber. Over and over, almost without exception, Kennedy’s friends and colleagues said, “If anyone can beat this, Ted can.” They called him the consummate fighter, a man of tremendous stamina, the last lion of the Senate.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the television was on in Senator Kennedy’s hospital room. Was he watching? And if he was, what was it like to hear these expressions of sadness? Was it helpful to hear his reputation as a fierce fighter invoked again and again?

The sad truth is this battle will be exponentially tougher than any Kennedy has fought. Much harder than the health care reform and other issues he’s championed tirelessly throughout his career. Brain cancer is in an entirely different league. Like lung cancer, it doesn’t care how good a fighter you are, and it certainly isn’t impressed by the past battles you’ve won.

My dad, a World War II veteran, turned 19 on the front lines and somehow survived the Battle of the Bulge (aka Battle of the Ardennes) while watching many of his fellow soldiers die. He spent months in military hospitals, first in England, then in Missouri, where doctors wired his jaw back together and removed shrapnel from his face and back. When he recovered, the GI bill paid for his law school degree.

He was a fighter, with little patience for whiners. When his tumors returned after his first round of chemo, his oncologist asked him if he was up for another round. Dad didn’t hesitate. “Hell yes!” he barked. Throughout his treatment, up until the week before he died, he went to his law office almost every day.

Ted Kennedy has emerged the survivor in his tragedy-wracked family. His oldest brother, Joe Jr., was killed in World War II just four months before my dad was wounded. Teddy Kennedy was 12 years old and had no inkling that years later he would watch his other brothers die, their murders captured on camera.

Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect the media spotlight to disappear from this latest Kennedy tragedy. As a journalist, I should know better.

But I worry that all the talk about “Kennedy the fierce fighter” - while undoubtedly well-meaning - could become one more burden for the senator. The last thing he needs now is to feel pressure to pull out a victory.

Yesterday, when Senator Kennedy left the hospital, the cameras were rolling and again, Kennedy put on a brave front, waving and smiling. His two dogs were waiting outside the hospital, an image I found especially poignant.

Cancer patients often say their diagnosis neatly and cruelly divides their world into two halves: life before cancer and life after cancer. Kennedy had just returned from walking his dogs on Saturday when he had the seizure that led to his cancer diagnosis. Yesterday, his pets wagged their tails as the senator returned home to life after cancer.

As he drove away, reporters yelled “Good luck, senator, good luck!”

Maybe the well wishes are exactly what Kennedy needs to hear right now. And maybe he also needs his privacy. What do you think?


Filed under: Sen. Ted Kennedy
soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Travis

    If anybody seriously would like to see Mr. Kennedy safely cure his own cancer I would strongly suggest searching for "Rick Simpson." He has made hemp oil that has cured peoples cancer and other ailments. One gentlemen had been told he had an aggressive form of cancer and two months to live. He had all but given up hope but his family didn't. They found out about Rick Simpson's "Phoenix Tears" and contacted him to learn more. Hesitantly, the gentleman went to see Rick Simpson and Rick gave(no charge) him enough hemp oil to cure his cancer. Almost one year later the gentleman went through a CT scan and they found that the tumors had shrank to a very small size. A few months later he went back for another scan and they found that he was completely %100 cancer free.

    THC kills mutated cells very efficiently while leaving the healthy cells unharmed. I encourage everyone who sees this post to look into this and blog about what you found. Educate as many people as you can because cancer can in most instances be beaten just by ingesting an extract from a plant. It is truly a cure all and more people need to know this so they can heal themselves and their loved ones.

    June 2, 2008 at 4:45 pm |
  2. LaVon K Hummel

    Ted Kennedy is seems to be a very loveing and fun loveing man, we often treat people the way we would like to be treated. Everything I have Heard about him is how he was always there for people in time s of trouble. So should we should do the same for him. He is young at heart and shall fair well. I'am a 51 year old women who know the Kennedy family well . They have been beloved by my family as far back as I can remember. They have endered more than there share, but always amazes me.because of the stength. I always wanted to thank the Kennedys now I can thank s to technology I can. Thankyou thankyou thankyou... One more thing,
    Ted your still a hottie. LaVon In Nebraska.

    May 22, 2008 at 11:27 pm |
  3. Annie Kate

    I think Senator Kennedy probably appreciates the well wishes of the public and hopefully it makes him feel less cut off from the world to hear them. I do think though that the well wishers and the press should be careful not to invade his privacy – a good balance can be had if we use common sense.

    I wish the best for Senator Kennedy and I appreciate you, Cate, sharing your story with us.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    May 22, 2008 at 9:44 pm |
  4. Sabrina in Los Angeles

    My family line branches off from a common ancestor to the Kennedy's.

    We also have tragedy with cancer (lung or stomach for smokers) or strokes/heart attacks.

    This is a very strong family line and we don't give up easily. We trudge through it and keep going.

    I personally have experienced enough to break anyone...but I still endure.

    He will fight and God willing, a cure should come speedily for him.

    Green tea, Vitamin C, L-Proline and L-Lysine have shown to reverse cancers....IT can't hurt to try it.

    May 22, 2008 at 4:06 pm |
  5. Rachel

    I agree he needs his privacy.
    I just lost my mother this year from a malignant brain tumor. (A glioblastoma multiforme also on the left cortex within the speech center) She was an incredibly tenacious woman and while I think it helps to be encouraged, as you said, there is life before and life after a cancer diagnosis. Especially if the diagnosis is terminal. (My mom's was... I don't know yet whether they know with him)

    Cancer polarizes your world and creates the pressure to really enjoy and savor each day you are given. I wouldn't have taken that away from my mom for a minute... and I wish the prospect of dying isn't what it took for most people to really live. The most important thing to mom though was to not let her sickness define the rest of her life (she was given little more than 6 months, but we were blessed with nearly 18). What that meant was allowing her the freedom to focus on things beyond her diagnosis and 'life sentence'. Allowing Ted Kennedy the freedom to enjoy his life and giving his family the space to be real, to not feel constrained in their emotions because of a spotlight or to simply process this news privately is the most decent and caring response our society could provide.

    Additionally, with this diagnosis, time is of the essence. From experience, a tumor that attacks your speech center, is a ticking clock on the time remaining to express your thoughts and feelings to those you love. There is no telling how his tumor will progress, but to offer the family time and privacy now while he is still relatively healthy and communicative is imperative. To rob him or his family of that would be devastating.

    However, I do believe that the well-intentioned comments such as Kennedy being a 'fierce fighter' can do nothing but good. Giving privacy and providing encouragement are very separate entities and while I respect the concern of releasing Kennedy from pressure to pull out a victory, cancer has a way of invigorating the fighter's spirit. And it is such a personal battle... rallying him can only help him feel supported. And he'll need that support for the good, fierce run ahead of him. But when death comes knocking, as it will for all of us, it has such a capacity to calm, to provide an undeniable peace... that all the support and encouragement in the world will not be able to yell over it. Until that time though, he (and his family) should feel the outpouring of support as best as people can express it. It is sometimes so lonely to feel or project loss, and reminders that people care are so sustaining.

    I pray countless blessings of endurance, comfort and peace to the entire Kennedy family. And that they might be afforded some privacy at such a delicate time.

    May 22, 2008 at 3:51 pm |
  6. Doris,Memphis

    Yes! Yes! Yes!

    America please give him privacy! Keep the cameras off for now!
    We owe him that!

    May 22, 2008 at 3:45 pm |
  7. Heather

    Any time I hear of anyone having been diagnosed with cancer, it reminds me of my mother who died in 86 of breast cancer. She wasn't one of the lucky ones. Despite eight years of remission she died. Its all about timing, the type of cancer. I didn't know she was dying until Thanksgiving of 85 at UCLA. I have never celebrated Thanksgiving since. My mother refused to let cancer keep her from doing what she loved. No one outside our family knew or suspected she had cancer. She didnt want people to treat her differently. Plus when you live in a small seaside town people will talk. I think what ever Sen Kennedy decides to do is a personal matter. I find it really offensive when people start talking about him as if hes already dead. Hes not. Hes alive. He is a fighter, however, maybe this time he needs to focus on himself. Chemo is basically killing yourself to save yourself. He wont have the same energy that he normally does. I know he has lived a long full life. He has family and friends for support. Let him do what he wants to do. Follow his lead. The media well I thinks its MSNBC needs to leave him alone. Helicopters hovering over his house while he sits with his wife on their deck is way over the line. Enough! Lets let him have the privacy that he so much deserves and is entitled to and remember that doctors and hospitals cant reveal his medical information without his permission. Its federal law. If he wants us to know well know.

    May 22, 2008 at 3:38 pm |
  8. Jenn

    As a cancer survivor myself (diagnosed at age 24, shortly after my wedding), I'm torn with the question in your last paragraph. I'm far from being a public figure of any sort, but I think I would welcome the attention only to a certain degree. However, I would also think the Senator need not have the cameras and reporters following him to every hospital visit. That's a bit intrusive at a time when one needs to have some quiet time with family and friends. Everything in moderation I suppose.

    I'm rooting for the Senator all the way. His family has gone through so much, he has gone through so much.

    I live for the day when "cancer" is a mere word of the past and nothing more.

    May 22, 2008 at 3:27 pm |
  9. RHONDA

    I don't know or care if he needs his privacy!!! He should never have been allowed to remain in politics! I know, let's ash Mary Jo Kopechne how she feels about his politics and privacy! Oh thats right she can't say anything because he killed her.

    May 22, 2008 at 3:18 pm |
  10. Pat M

    Cate Vojdik – Thank you. At last a reporter with heartfelt compassion and understanding. I applaud you for your excellent journalism talent but most of all for your ability to see what many may have missed.

    I have been reading the blog comments on Senator Kennedy. And I found myself saying silently, how awful it will be if his family happens upon these sites. It is surely not what they need to see at this very difficult time. And especially given some of the hateful comments intermixed among the well wishers.

    Cate, I believe if I was Ted Kennedy at this point in time, what I would want most is my Privacy and time alone with my Family. And I sincerely hope all will give Ted Kennedy this priviledge he so deserves. And Thank You again. Kudos.

    May 22, 2008 at 2:48 pm |
  11. toni santatella

    you could not have written a better piece. God bless us all and especially the Kennedy's in their hour of need.

    May 22, 2008 at 2:33 pm |
  12. Jennifer Katy, Texas

    Your description of hearing that your father has cancer was quite eloquent. I remember feeling those exact feelings. The rock of your family is now the weak one and you must be the strong one. I never felt I was up to the task, but I hope I have made him proud.

    I know that while you are in the midst of this tragedy you want to run away with your loved one (to "out run") the disease...but the fact remains it is closing in quickly

    I think privacy would be a blessing, and a time to process is definitely needed. Also, remembering those around us also need to process it and help where they can.

    There is nothing more amazing than to see how many people truly were blessed by our loved ones, or those who are there to support you when/if the time comes.

    May 22, 2008 at 2:21 pm |
  13. Debbie, Denham Springs, LA

    On one of the previous posts about Senator Kennedy there were some horrible comments made by two bloggers that honestly, shocked me. I've even heard people I know say things like "So there is a God." It's one thing to disagree with the man's politics, it's another to rejoice in his illness. I mentioned in my response to those comments that I thought that was bad karma, to which someone promptly responded that karma is a two way street. Gee, thanks for the enlightenment. Since I'm not a complete moron, (last time I was tested, anyway) I know that karma is a totality of everything one does in life and how whether those things are good or bad, they have a boomerang effect on the individual. SO...my point was...if you wish ill will upon someone or find happiness in their tragedies, it will most likely come back to haunt you. Like I said, even if you hate Senator Kennedy's politics, he is still a human being and he is fighting for his life. My mother died of ovarian cancer 13 years ago after wasting away to a mere 112 pounds, most of which was fluid from a tumor. To this day I remember exactly what it felt like when her doctors told us about her prognosis. It was the worst day of my life and I completely sympathize with the Kennedy family at this time. This man is above all, a father, a son and a husband and that entire family deserves respect for what they are about to go through.

    May 22, 2008 at 1:37 pm |
  14. Robin

    Yes, Senator Kennedy needs our well wishes yet his family also needs privacy. One of our dearest friends was recently diagnosed with lung cancer and is undergoing chemo. The family needs to be together now. I think if people send cards to the Senator's office would be appreciated by Ted and his family.

    May 22, 2008 at 1:23 pm |
  15. Teresa

    My opinion is this, Cate: Ted has lived his entire life in the spotlight. Reporters are PART of his family in a sense. While I also wish him good luck and best of health, I hope he uses the time he has left ENJOYING himself and his family more.

    I just turned 47 and believe for the last 30 yrs. I am on borrowed time. While I am healthy, pert-near none of us will leave without a disease. It is just a matter of time. I would think that anyone hitting the 50 mark, has taken some time to reflect and decide what is truly important to their own existence and has chosen to live accordingly. I'm sure Ted has done this : )

    I feel ALL the Kennedy's and even distant relatives have lived such PRIVILEGED lives. Most of us will never come close to the blessings they were given. .... "to whom much is given, much SHOULD be expected"....

    I have a feeling Ted is going to surprise us all and leave us with information that no other person has yet revealed concerning his family. It would be the RIGHT thing to do.

    May 22, 2008 at 12:20 pm |

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