With so many others today, I find myself reflecting in awe at the life of Senator John McCain. I never knew the Senator personally, but I find myself deeply attached to him, so much so that I cried myself to sleep after hearing the news of his passing. My reaction stems from my connection to the Senator, not a political connection, not a familial one, but one deeply personal to me. We both were drafted into a war—one I did not care to be in. Not Vietnam, but a war against Glioblastoma (GBM), an aggressive brain cancer. The Senator and I, like many others, became fighters against an incurable and almost always terminal disease that few survive. The latest statistics show only 30% of GBM patients will live two years, and only if they undergo surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
I first met Senator McCain decades before when I was chairwoman of my college’s “Students for McCain.” Our group flooded the town of Fulton, Missouri with McCain campaign literature during the 2000 Republican Presidential primary. I organized a group to attend a rally for the Senator in St. Louis. Seared in my memory is the smile of the American hero who, upon exiting a Black SUV, approached me before anyone else, and shook my hand. In the midst of the cheering crowd, I observed him sincerely thanking a veteran for his service. The Senator focused only on the vet, mentally blocking out the cheering and praise for himself.
I had no idea that years later this hero and I would journey on a different battle, a fight for our lives. In December of 2015, I had seizure and a tumor was discovered in the frontal lobe of my brain. Shortly thereafter, I would receive the worst news. I had Grade 4 GBM. For the next two years, I would undergo a grueling course of treatment that would test the courage, fortitude, and strength of my family and me, something I imagine the McCain family knows all too well.
I am grateful that Senator McCain chose to bravely fight this disease and stay the course with his family as long as he could. Not everyone makes that choice. Sadly, Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old Californian, was also diagnosed with Grade 4 GBM almost exactly one year prior to my diagnosis. Instead of fighting, Brittany chose what she thought was best for her. Less than a year after her diagnosis, she ended her life, with drugs prescribed by a doctor under Oregon’s so-called “Death with Dignity” Act.
While I have made it a point to not judge my the decisions of person’s fighting terminal diseases, I am glad I chose to fight GBM rather than give up. My fortitude is no stronger than anyone else’s. In my own journey there were many times when I was so physically sick and emotionally exhausted that I felt I could no longer hang on. The suffering was great. Buoyed by my faith, I would pray that I could make it just one more day. Slowly and surely, it got easier. I was battling terminal cancer with dignity.
When I learned of Senator McCain’s diagnosis, I was heartbroken that the Hero of the Hanoi Hilton would now face this suffering in what likely would be his final days. Still, he inspired me to continue my own fight by his decision to be with his family and remain true to his beliefs in spite of political pressure.
As I reflect on my journey today, I think of all the things I would have missed had I chosen the path of Maynard and not the path of McCain. I would have missed the opportunity to honor my paternal and maternal grandfathers, both veterans, at their funerals. I would have missed the joy of a cousin’s wedding, my brother’s 40th birthday vacation to Colorado, the laughter and memories of reuniting with old friends, and the new friends I have made. Most importantly, I never would have experienced the love of so many who were able to bless and encourage me during my fight.
I would have also missed the simple joys of life so often taken for granted—watching cat videos with my niece Olivia, seeing my niece Ava beam when she won a gold metal at her first ice skating competition, giving advice to my tween nephew Isaac when he developed his first crush, hearing my nephew Noah say his first sentence, holidays with family, and the sweetest moments with my parents and siblings. If I had given up, I would have escaped the pain, but I never would have experienced this joy and love. I believe the Senator would agree.
Senator John McCain showed us what “Death with Dignity” truly is—its fighting the good fight to be with your family, helping others, loving you country, standing for your values, taking nothing for granted, and to inspiring your fellow fighters to continue. Today, I salute my hero, John McCain, and extend prayers and love to his family.