How people express support as John McCain faces brain cancer

Photo: Elizabeth Warren

John McCain has an aggressive form of brain cancer. After 31 years of high-visibility leadership in the Senate, he’s due a lot of sympathy. The sincere and personal notes that his colleagues have written impressed me.

The prognosis for McCain’s cancer is poor. Like many Americans, I’ve admired him for years. His heroism as a soldier and prisoner-of-war in Vietnam led to a public career of clear, consistent, and sometimes courageously expressed statements about politics. He would have made a great president, with an honest communication style reminiscent of Harry Truman.

While my political views aren’t nearly the same as McCain’s, I have admired his principled stance against torture, borne out of personal experience. When running for president, he corrected a questioner in a town hall setting who said that his opponent Barack Obama was an Arab. And of late, he’s criticized the leadership in the Senate for its secretive handling of the health-care reform bill, accusing Republicans of defying their own standards set during the original ACA debate.

The statement from Meaghan McCain moved me

Naturally, the statement from his daughter, Fox News host Meaghan McCain, is the most touching.

The news of my father’s illness has affected every one of us in the McCain family. My grandmother, mother, brothers, sister, and I have all endured the shock of the news, and now we live with the anxiety about what comes next. It is an experience familiar to us, given my father’s previous battle with cancer — and familiar to the countless American families whose loved ones are also stricken with the tragedy of disease and the inevitability of age. If we could ask anything of anyone now, it would be the prayers of those of you who understand this all too well. We would be so grateful for them.

It won’t surprise you to learn that in all this, the one of us who is most confident and calm is my father. He is the toughest person I know. The cruelest enemy could not break him. The aggressions of political life could not bend him. So he is meeting this challenge as he has every other. Cancer may afflict him in many ways: but it will not make him surrender. Nothing ever has.

My love for my father is boundless, and like any daughter I cannot and do not wish to be in a world without him. I have faith that those days remain far away. Yet even in this moment, my fears for him are overwhelmed by one thing above all: gratitude for our years together, and the years still to come. He is a warrior at dusk, one of the greatest Americans of our age, and the worthy heir to his father’s and grandfather’s name. But to me he is something more. He is my strength, my example, my refuge, my confidante, my teacher, my rock, my hero — my dad.”

This demonstrates an incredible level of grace in a terrible moment for McCain’s family. It touches on his history, his public service, his personal qualities, and her fond feelings for him. It gives us all a window into who John McCain is. Confident and calm is not how anyone I know would react to a cancer diagnosis.

Statements about McCain’s toughness ring truest from those who’ve fought with or against him

Nobody’s going to speak ill of a man like this facing a terrible diagnosis. My usual principles for analyzing statements — that they should be as clear and factual as possible — go out the window in these cases. My review of statements of support for McCain show that brevity and heartfelt personal sentiment ring the truest.

House Speaker Paul Ryan did an admirable job with a nonpartisan sentiment.

John McCain has always been a warrior. It’s who he is. I know John is going to fight this with the same sheer force of will that has earned him the admiration of the nation. And all of us, not as Republicans or Democrats, but as Americans, are behind him. The prayers of the whole House are with Senator McCain and his family.

When it comes to ways to cite tougness, John Dingell’s metaphor wins.

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren shared a personal memory. So did his former running mate Sarah Palin.


Former president George H.W. Bush also wrote from a lifetime of shared experience.

The Hanoi Hilton couldn’t break John McCain’s spirit many years ago, so Barbara and I know — with confidence — he and his family will meet this latest battle in his singular life of service with courage and determination.

How do you write about a political opponent? Barack Obama tweeted directly to McCain. Hillary Clinton, who served with him in the Senate, wrote to his family.

I’m sure McCain was roused to hear from Representative Steve Scalise, who’s recovering in the hospital from a gunshot wound, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a fierce political opponent. If you’re in public life, you have to say something. The only thing you can do wrong is to write some generic pabulum that anyone could write. And that’s what President Trump and Bill Clinton did. The man is facing cancer after a heroic lifetime of military and public service. You can do better than the triteness of “thoughts and prayers.”

Statement from President Donald J. Trump: Senator John McCain has always been a fighter. Melania and I send our thoughts and prayers to Senator McCain, Cindy, and their entire family. Get well soon.



How grownups deal with grief

In your life, you’re going to have to speak with people in pain. It’s difficult to know what to say in those moments. It’s harder if its a public statement.

If you think about the experiences you’ve shared with the person who’s suffering and their family, you’ll come up with something. It may be awkward and uncomfortable, but grief is like that. If it’s personal and heartfelt, it will be better, and the people who read it will appreciate it.

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    1. I give Graham credit for a personal and heartfelt sentiment. I don’t think anyone thinks cancer is worthy. And no one wants to say the truth, which is that given the prognosis for this cancer, it’s a question of how long McCain can last, not whether he dies of cancer in the end.

      I won’t criticize people for personal and heartfelt sentiments, only for not really trying.

      1. I am deeply saddened by the news of Senator McCain’s diagnosis. My wife lost her 53-month courageous battle with glioblastoma 17 months ago. Her incredible attitude throughout those months inspired me to write a book entitled “A Husband’s Guide to Hands-On Caregiving” which was published in April through Amazon. It may be a helpful resource for the family, especially Mrs. McCain.
        I am very hopeful that the senator will continue to fight this disease in the same way that he has fought many battles in the past. My thoughts and prayers go out to Senator McCain and his entire family.
        If you have contact info for the family, I would be happy to send them a copy of my book.

  1. John McCain is worthy of praise. Glioblastoma is a thief in the night – a deadly one that stole the life of our 19 year old nephew eight years ago. The effort to discover treatments and a cure for this ruthless form of cancer will no doubt get a positive assist from Senator McCain.

    Worth being candid about is the fact that John McCain lost his bid against Barrack Obama for the White House nine years ago. He wasn’t healthy, vital and vigorous then when the country, in the midst of financial crisis, required all three qualities from its new president. I crossed the aisle and voted for Barrack Obama.

    Though in apparent physical and mental decline, McCain subsequently ran and won re-election to the Senate – the body I would argue America once relied upon for courageous and bipartisan resolution to its most pressing problems. McCain was not solely responsible for the Senate’s two decade swan dive into partisan bickering but as a senior statesman, he and his peers failed where the prior generation succeeded – think Moynihan, Simpson, Bowles and Kennedy.

    McCain’s failure doesn’t have to diminish his contribution; I pray it will inspire his 99 colleagues to forge a way forward and resolve embedded problems with statesmanlike discipline, candor and compromise.

  2. John McCain is a REAL Man !!! The world will miss him and every VN vet around the globe. Thanks for sticking to your beliefs and believing in the best for humanity. God Speed !!! A Vietnam VET 1962-1966.