We have lost a great man. Jack Layton, long-time politician, new surprise Leader of the Official Opposition, gentle man and friend to many has died of an unspecified cancer, just after being treated for prostate cancer.
It made me very sad. I never met the man personally but, like many, I felt like I knew him. Wen I first heard that he had prostate cancer, I immediately felt the same bond I feel with everyone who shares this disease. We joke about being welcomed into the club that no one wants to join. He is gone now, but there are lessons in every premature death. What do we thank Jack for, other than his tremendous contribution to Canada?
In his final letter to Canadians which he wrote two days before his death, he addressed part of it to me (and all other cancer patients). After his initial thank you's and admission that he wasn't going to make it, he wrote:
To other Canadians who are on journeys to defeat cancer and live your lives, I say this: please don't be discouraged that my own journey hasn't gone as well as I had hoped. You must not lose your own hope. Treatments and therapies have never been better in the face of this disease. You have every reason to be optimistic, determined and focused on the future. My only other advice is to cherish every moment with those you love at every stage of your journey, as I have done this summer.
This is a great message of hope and one that all people with cancer or other chronic or terminal disease needs to take to heart. It's so important for us to have hope because the moment you lose hope is the moment you begin to die. As I've commented in other posts, even if you decide to stop treatment (based on educated reasoning) you are not giving up hope. You have just decided to try to enjoy your remaining time. While my disease is incurable today, it may not be in a few years. Even though it might turn out to be too late for me, I will never give up hope. And while my future may be limited, I can look to the future for Dianne and my kids and hope that their lives are as rich as mine has been.
Much has already been written about Jack as befitting a man of his stature and accomplishments and I am pleased that much of it is about Jack the person, rather than just Jack the politician. Interestingly, one article I read talked about the inappropriate use of terms like "losing the battle", "fighting the cancer". I've posted about this too, but it's refreshing to see the debate starting in the press, even in a small way. As my friend and well-known oncologist Robert Buckman said in the article, "The idea that he was waging a battle which he lost demeans him." There is an unintended implication that those who "lose the battle" may not have "fought" hard enough. Similarly, calling someone a "survivor" may suggest that they "fought harder" than someone who dies (if anything, it may be be the reverse). Some may think this is just being overly sensitive, but you need to see it from the perspective of the person with the disease.
One of the comments made in response to this article was from a man who had cancer when he was 17. He said, "I can't say I did much myself to fight it. A couple good oncologists and some pretty harsh chemicals fought the cancer, I just showed up and was along for the ride..." And farther on, "I didn't survive cancer. I survived the treatments, and they made my cancer go away."
I haven't stopped "fighting" and I don't think of myself as a "survivor". That's just me, but perhaps we should be a little more thoughtful with inspirational leaders like Jack.
A final point I want to make concerns the fact that he wouldn't tell us what his second cancer was.... the one that killed him. Perhaps he thought that by announcing what it was, people might become convinced he wasn't going to make it. Because of this, there were many people who wouldn't have had a chance to have "that talk" which I've always said is extremely important. But we must recognize the position Jack was in. As a public figure, the press would have focused on the disease and held an unsolicited, unappreciated and inappropriate "death watch". They would would have had him dead sooner than he was. Unfortunately, this would have overshadowed his accomplishments and the positive coverage he and his political party continued to have throughout.
There is no conflict here. As I have stressed in previous posts, the decision of who to tell and when should always be made by the person and not by someone else. Jack had to think about the impact this would have on his party, to which he had dedicated his life. And I am sure that those he really wanted to know and to talk to were made aware and they and Jack had those precious opportunities that mean so much. And while I'm as curious as the next guy, he made the right decision. We'll likely find out shortly.
Above all, the biggest lesson that Jack gave us with his death is the remembrance of who he was and what he stood for. His love of life, the love he had for his family, the love he had for his country are all things we can all aspire to. So the great lesson of his death is his life. Who knows what his legacy would have been if he lived longer, but the one he has left with us now can change us all. As he said at the end of his letter,
My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world.
That's something we should all aspire to.
With thanks to the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail.