The best response in the face of death: laughter, love and life

The Baltimore Sun

Since we got to be here, let's live. - Marvin Gaye

If I am ever diagnosed with cancer, I already know what I'm going to do: laugh my fool head off.

I will ensconce myself in front of the big screen with a stack of DVDs - the "Vitameatavegamin" episode of I Love Lucy will be at the top, but Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart will also be in there, along with Frasier, Albert Brooks, Borat, The Daily Show - anything that has ever made me giggle will be pressed into service.

You see, 20 years ago, I read a fascinating book called Love, Medicine & Miracles by Dr. Bernie Siegel. It argued the restorative powers of laughter, faith, love and will in fighting even the most fearsome illnesses. I decided then that if I ever found myself on the receiving end of some grim diagnosis, Dr. Lucille Ball and the rest would be integral members of my medical team.

To which you might respond that I'd surely be wasting my time. I'm ready for that, too. I would reply that this is my cancer, and if you want to make decisions on how a cancer should be faced, go get your own.

As you have doubtless guessed, the foregoing is my way of elbowing into the debate over what Elizabeth Edwards, wife of presidential aspirant John Edwards, should and should not do now that she has been diagnosed with a recurrence of breast cancer. The disease, we are told, has metastasized to her bones; it is treatable but not curable.

In making that announcement, the couple also made another announcement that has had folks talking ever since: She would not retire to a sickbed, nor he to a caregiver's role. They would remain in the race.

A presidential race is a punishing gantlet of early mornings, late nights, handshakes, speeches, forced smiles and chicken dinners. It is grueling if you are in good health. Worse if you are not.

My entirely unscientific perspective is that most people support Mrs. Edwards. They see courage in her decision, a refusal to give the monster cancer a single inch it has not earned.

But there have been dissenting opinions. One blogger called her decision shortsighted. Howard Stern called it "ridiculous." She has been accused of a surfeit of ambition. It has been suggested that she is wasting precious, dwindling time that could be better spent with her young children.

What's interesting is that none of us questions our right to venture criticism of this most personal of decisions. We take for granted that we have a vote in the matter. Have you heard anyone abstain or say, "It's not my business?" Me neither.

Which is business as usual for an intrusive culture where other people's business becomes everybody's business, and we speak with unearned familiarity of Tom and Katie and Jen and Brit and what they did and what they should do now. So "Johnny and Liz" become but more grist for the mill, a new narrative arc in the reality show that used to be called news.

That said, though, I have one word for Elizabeth Edwards: godspeed.

And godspeed too, to Tony Snow, the White House press secretary who is battling a cancer recurrence of his own.

I claim no right to critique how they face a challenge none of us would ever choose. But I trust you won't find it contradictory or hypocritical if I confess to admiring their defiance.

Life, it has been said, is a terminal condition. So if it's true that Mrs. Edwards and Mr. Snow are dying, well, we're all dying. Nothing special about that.

In that sense, they face the same question we all face. What shall I do until I die?

They give the answer all of us should: Live.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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