What Americans Do When Our People Have Cancer (And the One Thing We Don’t Do Enough)

Photo credit to Aaron Burden via Unsplash

Dear Candidates/Elected Officials,

A group of friends recently gathered at a dive bar in the shadows of the U.S. Capitol. We did not talk politics. Instead, we told stories of our friend Eve: how her favorite accessories were a big smile and perfect red lipstick, how we loved her thick southern accent and glorious sense of fun, how nice she was to everyone. We may have gestured wildly in the telling of an Eve tale and spilled some beer. We tried not to linger on the cancer that took our friend far too soon.

But you know who does need to talk about cancer? You do. Nearly half a million Americans will die from cancer this year alone. Yet issues like cancer research and funding rarely seem to come up in the endless news cycles and coverage of candidates.

We have to think you have similar stories to ours. But in case you don’t, here’s what Americans do when our people—our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends, our patients, our families—get cancer.

We start with food. We bake banana bread and prepare casseroles. We roast vegetables and roll enchiladas. We pack lunches for our friend’s kids alongside our own. We remember our person’s absolute favorite food and we drive to their favorite restaurant, pick it up, and deliver it with love.

We show up. We create sign-up sheets to run errands, take one child to a game, another to a movie. We drive our people to chemo; we try to make them laugh until they need rest. And when our clear-eyed people tell us what might happen and what their children will need, we resist every temptation to insist they are wrong and and we listen.

We care for our people. We send flowers and cards, deliver hugs and the food made with love. We help them bathe, take their medicine and move from bed to chair. Those in medical professions work compassionately to treat and help our people. Those who are researchers work tirelessly to find the cure.

We walk, run, bike and donate to raise money for cancer research, to honor our people. This is what Americans do.

But there’s one thing we Americans don’t do enough when it comes to cancer.

That’s advocate.

Too often we don’t call or write you—the candidates, the would-be decision makers—and tell you it’s imperative that you support investments in cancer research and prevention tools. We don’t ask you to encourage collaborations among cancer-fighting entities, insist that you do everything you can to find a cure. That needs changing.

The experts can share the statistics on cancer, the cuts to cancer research. What we voters can share are stories.

My people? There are the three mamas whose lives were a lot like mine until cancer. Their names are Eve, Lucy and Lisa, and they each experienced cancer multiple times—nine rounds of cancer for my three friends. That’s three beautiful women who died in their forties. Three beautiful mamas who did not get to see their children become teenagers, go to high school, drive a car.

My list is not limited to Eve, Lucy and Lisa. In the last year we also lost my sweet friend Sue, who only got to be a grandma for a few months. And John, who won’t get to watch either of his girls graduate. I started to list the friends and family who’ve been impacted by cancer and I had to stop.

My one degree of cancer is at least 20 people.

But what if we’re only one degree away from a cure? What if you—our current and future members of Congress, the Senate, the White House—could agree to talk to each other and get this done? What if?

Americans will do anything for their people with cancer, including mourn and celebrate those we lose. It’s time we add advocacy to our lists.

And it’s time you listen. Please share what you will do to find a cure.


Kristin O’Keefe

P.S. Here are some ways to advocate. Sign the Cancer Action Network’s petition to make funding cancer research a top priority: www.cancervotes.org. Or write your own letter; you can find emails of candidates for office in your area at vote411.org. (Feel free to modify this letter; I sent it to the leading candidates for Congress and Senate in my district.) And once the candidates are in office? Keep advocating. #CancerVotes #OneDegree

P.P.S. Just want to make clear, cancer patients/survivors do plenty–they parent, work, get treatment, cook, help their networks in a myriad of ways. Also? They probably advocate better than anyone. We helpers/bystanders need to support them however we can.

P.P.P.S. On October 18, Vice President Biden released a major Moonshot Task Force Report aimed at finding the cure for cancer. We were no doubt talking about other things that day. It’s got so many ways to save so many lives. Check it out if you can.




6 thoughts on “What Americans Do When Our People Have Cancer (And the One Thing We Don’t Do Enough)

  1. Martha says:

    So impressive. As a cancer fighter I thank and applaud you. I have to believe the cure is right around the corner and that we will learn from and pay tribute to all who have lost their lives while waiting for the answer. You so eloquently discribe how awlful this disease impacts the fighters and those that love us.

  2. Darlene K Campbell says:

    Right on Kristin. I am so very sorry you have lost friends to cancer. Voices need to be heard. They need to STOP poisoning people with the “industrialized food products” that stock our supermarket shelves too. This is a direct link to western disease. Take care, Darlene

    1. Kristin O'Keefe says:

      Thanks, Darlene, and really important point–research into environmental causes of cancer may lead to serious prevention efforts. Need to support the scientists and medical professionals looking at this.

  3. Aviva Goldfarb says:

    Such an important post, Kristin, cancer is far too pervasive in all of our lives and it’s so crucial to unify resources for a cure and better treatment options.

    1. Kristin O'Keefe says:

      Thanks Aviva! Hopefully our incoming administration and congress will make this a priority. The more we advocate, the better our chances.


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