Your Silence Will Not Save You

That title is a paraphrase of a quote by Audre Lorde.

Late last week, we learned that Adam Yauch died at age 47.  A cultural icon for my generation, many knew him as MCA from the Beastie Boys.  In 2009, he was diagnosed with salivary gland cancer, a diagnosis only 2 in 100,000 American adults receive every year.

I didn’t know anything about Yauch, but read up about him over the weekend.  His story seems to be representative of my Generation X’s trajectory.  The Beastie Boys came across like screwed up New York punks, synthesizing the anger of hardcore and hip-hop; spitting out irreverence toward the status quo.  Less flamboyantly, he was a social activist, founding the Milrepa Foundation, active in the Free Tibet movement.  He was a Buddhist, even a personal acquaintance of the Dalai Lama.  He founded a film company, Oscilloscope Laboratories, which acquires, produces, and distributes independent films.  I think it’s our generation’s pattern — disillusioned by the weird 70s and Reagan 80s becomes angry then a spiritual seeker than a social entrepreneur writ large.

Now I hope he can continue to help us change the world.  When his death was announced on Friday, the headlines said that he died after a three year battle with cancer.

A hush falls over the room.  We suck the air in loudly and say “oooooh.”  We stop asking questions.

I have a few though, especially as related to this quote from his mother in the New York Times.

He had been admitted to the hospital on April 14 after a three-year battle with cancer of the salivary gland. He was conscious until the end.

“He was a very courageous person,” his mother, Frances Yauch, said. “He fought a long battle with cancer. He was hopeful to the very end.”

Mrs. Yauch said [he] had been undergoing chemotherapy this spring, but his health deteriorated rapidly over the last two weeks. “It all just seemed to happen overnight,” she said.

It’s a story I’ve heard before and absented any real details, I am left to wonder if cancer killed him or if he died of complications from treatment.  Chemotherapy is toxic by nature.  It’s how the cancer is killed, but it brings collateral damage.  White blood cells are knocked out too, leaving people susceptible to potentially deadly infections like pneumonia.

Also Read: 10 Things They Won’t Tell YouLamium

You’ll not hear me say that we need to scrap chemotherapy.  But here comes the “you’re either with us or you’re against us” dichotomous thinking.  We get stuck in that old pattern of not being able to speak up about the downsides of a good thing, lest we are labeled ungrateful.  But how will we ever improve treatments if we can’t have a frank discussion about the limitations of what we currently have?

Maybe Yauch’s cancer was so rare that it’s never been researched.  Maybe they only had experimental drugs that carried severe side effects and maybe he knew that and took the risk.  Maybe he had metastases that destroyed his vital organs.

I do believe in his right to privacy, of course, and have nothing but the deepest sympathy for his wife and daughter.  I know that to them, and to everyone who loved him, these questions might not matter.

But they should matter to the rest of us.  How effective are our current treatments?  What is the risk?  How can we make it better?

To all you advocates, let’s not just drop this, ok?  Let’s not allow the headlines of “death” and “cancer” lead us to assume that we understand the inevitability, the connection between the two.

Don’t stop asking questions.

I’ll leave you with a confession, then, of course, a video.  I never liked the Beastie Boys.  My husband is a huge fan and when he told me Friday MCA died, I was all like, WHO?  That said, I like this one.