Dear Jack Layton



I think I speak for most, if not all, Canadians when I mutter “damn it” and sigh heavily.

The reason Canadians of all political leanings paused at your announcement yesterday is because cancer has an eerie but largely unspoken grasp on everyone. Few among us are untouched by the disease, and this latest news of yours is a reminder that life has a way of shaking even the sturdiest of foundations, especially, it seems, when we could really use the stability. A person can’t swing a CT scanner in this country without hitting someone who either has or has had, or knows some who has or has had, cancer. Very little shock lingers after an announcement like yours because disbelief is quickly ousted by a familiar sense of disappointment — not again.

Any oncologist will tell you that cancer is not a single disease; it’s a blanket term for a type of disease that takes on many different forms and implications. Today, while some observers dig around to figure out what particular kind of cancer you’re battling now, others among us know it really doesn’t matter. Any cancer survivor will tell you that cancer is cancer. Regardless of who you are, how old you are, where you are, and what the sickness interrupts: it’s CANCER.

Cancer has kicked many asses and taken plenty of names, but what it needs more of is faces — visible, familiar faces. Thank you, Jack, for showing yours. Often, the reality of cancer is tucked away behind statistics. Nearly 118,000 Canadians will get cancer this year. Up to 45 percent of Canadians will develop a form of the disease in their lifetimes, and a quarter of Canadians will die from it. But 62 percent of those diagnosed with cancer survive.

I was a nineteen-year-old university student three time zones from home when cancer forced me to step away from the life of independence that I had so desperately and awkwardly fought for through my teenage years. I wasn’t the Leader of the Opposition (though my mom may beg to differ), but by 2001, a major accomplishment — freedom! — had finally been achieved. I could sit back and revel in that success, maybe even do something significant with this life, but then… cancer. And, just like that, my record screeched to a halt.

Cancer and its treatment manifest themselves physically but they take their toll emotionally. It’s easy to identify what cancer looks like, but much more difficult to know what it feels like until you’ve felt it. That’s why we need people — faces — to talk about their cancers and to remind others that survivability rates are improving, and that for the majority of people who are diagnosed with cancer, everything really will be okay.

No one needs to tell you to keep your chin up — you’ve built a career out of doing exactly that. The determination and perseverance that brought a fifty-year-old political party the kind of unforeseen gains that your NDP made in May is not the result of a one-off surge of adrenaline that wanes as the confetti settles.

While there are many differences between a sixty-one-year-old man who wants to change the country and a nineteen-year-old girl who just wanted to grow up, once cancer enters into the mix a shared sentiment emerges: There’s work to be done, yet.

Good luck, sir. We’ll see you — and, if chemotherapy’s in store, your thicker, curlier, and darker moustache — again in September.

[Read the follow-up post]