Bill Keller Cancer Patient Column Inspires Online Backlash

New York Times columnist is accused of bullying Lisa Adams

New York Times columnist Bill Keller has whipped up an online backlash over a recent opinion piece that used stage 4 cancer patient and blogger Lisa Adams to question the wisdom and efficacy of expensive medical treatments.

Adams and her defenders were quick to slam Keller, the paper’s former executive editor, as insensitive and tone-deaf.

“The main thing is that I am alive,” Adams tweeted after Keller’s piece hit. “Do not write me off and make statements about how my life ends TIL IT DOES, SIR.”

Keller used his father-in-law’s decision not to participate in research trials and take experimental drugs as an example of the value of palliative care.

“What Britain and other countries know, and my country is learning, is that every cancer need not be Verdun, a war of attrition waged regardless of the cost or the casualties,” Keller wrote. “It seemed to me, and still does, that there is something enviable about going gently.”

For her part, Adams, who was diagnosed in 2006 after the birth of her third child, tweeted that she had not engaged in any “heroic measures” and had only participated in standard treatments for her type of cancer.

What set many commentators off was that Keller’s piece came on the heels of wife Emma G. Keller’s Guardian op-ed that said that Adams’ tweets and writings about her battle with breast cancer had the air of a “reality TV show.”

Both Kellers praised Adams’ writing and Bill Keller emphasized that the decision to let social media users in on her health troubles was hers to make. However, he also implied that Adams’ value to Sloan-Kettering as a fundraising tool had given her access to treatments that might not be available to others and questioned the impact of her chronicle.

“But any reader can see that Adams’s online omnipresence has given her a sense of purpose, a measure of control in a tumultuous time, and the comfort of a loyal, protective online community,” Keller wrote. “Social media have become a kind of self-medication.”

The couple’s appraisal of Adams left critics charging that they were picking on a cancer patient.

“B. Keller, not quite overtly but certainly between the lines, suggests that Lisa Adams just die, already,” Greg Mitchell wrote in the Nation.  “He repeatedly compares her struggle, in a bad light,  to a ‘battlefield’ or ‘military’ campaign — this from the man who was a hawk on Iraq, staunchly defended Judy Miller,  and recently called for the bombing of Syria and backing the al-Qaeda rebels.”

While on Twitter, New York Post columnist John Podhoretz wrote, “I’ve been offline for an hour. Have Bill and Emma Keller attacked another person with cancer since I’ve been gone?”

Adams did not respond to an email requesting comment and Keller declined via email to offer a response to his critics. He said he has responded to questions from the Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan, who expects to write sometime this afternoon on the controversy.