‘Rhoda’ vs. Ted Kennedy: Speaking up (or not) for Brain Cancer

By Suzanne Leigh

Valerie Harper’s decision to announce that she had deadly leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a cancer that had spread to the brain’s coating from another location showed pluck and chutzpah.

Harper, 73, the star of Seventies sitcoms “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Rhoda” has broken ranks with a parade of famous brain cancer patients before her, who refrained from commenting on their diagnosis. In an interview with People magazine, she said that she was stunned by her disease but immediately thought about using it to spread awareness about the condition.

Stirring words and ones that are very different from the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who spoke sparingly about his own malignant brain tumor, widely believed to be glioblastoma multiforme, which claimed his life at 77.

A vote for Kennedy

While Harper’s spirited call to be “less scared of death” and “live each moment fully” is admirable, as the mother of a 12-year-old who died from a malignant brain tumor, I respect Kennedy’s decision not to let his diagnosis define his last months.

Like me, Kennedy was a cancer parent — his 12-year-old son Teddy was diagnosed with bone cancer. Unlike my own child, Kennedy’s son survived. Ted Kennedy Jr. is now 51.

In an article he wrote for Newsweek, just months before his death in 2009, the Lion of the Senate downplayed his brain tumor as “another medical challenge” and stated that nothing he was currently enduring compared with learning about his son’s diagnosis. So true: How can any cancer parent become an advocate for a disease that most commonly strikes people over 50, when one has witnessed the brush with death of one’s minor child?

‘What chance does my child have if …’

Kennedy described the amputation of Teddy’s leg and the subsequent clinical trial in which he was given massive doses of chemo. When the trial was declared a success, the families of the enrolled children had to pay for the drugs through their health insurance policy or out of pocket. The Kennedys had both excellent health coverage and excess cash; other families had neither. “Heartbroken parents pleaded with their doctors: What chance does my child have if I can only afford half of the prescribed treatments? Or two-thirds? I’ve sold everything,” he wrote.

I’ve learned that not every cancer parent is in favor of universal health care, an issue Kennedy defined as the “cause of my life” in the last tentative months of his life, following decades of creating neighborhood health centers, pushing COBRA, guiding the Americans with Disabilities Act and driving the biggest ever expansion of public health care for children.

And of course not everyone is a fan of Kennedy himself – a man with a flawed past. But thanks in large part to his efforts in spearheading health care initiatives, desperate scenarios in which parents sell everything in order to pay for effective cancer treatment, are significantly less likely to happen.

Rest in peace, Ted. And good luck, Valerie.

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