Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks on the floor of the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 25, 2017. McCain returned to Congress for the first time since being diagnosed with brain cancer. (C-SPAN2 via AP)

John McCain’s morality, and no one else’s, should guide his response to brain cancer

(RNS) — An immoral whack at those of us with diseases showed up front and center following news of Sen. John McCain's brain cancer diagnosis.

The GOP candidate that McCain squashed during last year’s primary election, an osteopathic physician, tossed a stinking turd at the senator, proving that a degree is not proof of high-quality knowledge.

So what did that failed GOP Senate candidate want to push? (The osteopath’s name is Kelli Ward. Not deserving a ton of positive publicity, I think. But there you go. )

“I hope that Senator McCain is going to look long and hard at this, that his family and advisers are going to look at this and they’re going to advise him to step away as quickly as possible," she said.


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McCain has the same brain cancer I was diagnosed with about seven months ago: glioblastoma, aka GBM. And yeah, it’s not fun. Median survival of about 15 months means half of the patients hit the Egress sooner. And there are some enormous limits attached.

But guess what? I’m OK so far. And McCain might be that, also.

Even patients who hit the median or close to it can maintain a pretty good quality of life until not long before their lives end. And no kidding: Members of Congress in my lifetime have included the anciently demented, ignorant and flat-out stupid who ran successfully for re-election time after time.

How’s McCain’s mind operating today? His precise current symptoms and any new limits are not clear yet. And if he were to choose to quit his elected office, nobody with working brains would attack that decision. But the speech he gave when he got back to the Senate only a few days after his brain surgery was pretty good. Better than some others.

I’ll admit that there is, no kidding, a moral standard that those of us who get slammed with an illness like GBM need to consider. We are all mortal, every one of us. But GBM is likely to push the focus on our unavoidable demise. And knowing the possibilities of symptoms is a good reason to consider what one’s limits should be. Particularly because it’s possible for us to cross that line quickly — and to suddenly lack the mental power to decide for ourselves what we should do.

My wife and I have had detailed discussions. Ditto, my talks with the editors and leaders of the organizations that continue to get occasional bits of journalism from me, despite my cancer-related semiretirement.

Sen. John McCain arrives on Capitol Hill with his wife, Cindy, right, on July 25, 2017. Photo by Eric Thayer/Reuters

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

McCain should similarly be talking to his family, to his staff, to his medical experts. No question about that. He should have a designated advocate that his family will know about (and maybe a legal document identifying that). And put his preferences in writing.

But for a political hack to try to spittle him out of his work? It’s frankly astounding for a politician to push a comment below the bar of the current president. But apparently it’s possible.

I’m not saying that McCain, or the nasty GOP physician, should necessarily follow any theological standards. But there are thought-provoking angles taken by many religious leaders. Consider some from Jewish studies.

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The Book of Proverbs has a few good examples that can apply to what we’re hearing now:

“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”

But one of the most famous and most broadly applicable tales is about the sage Hillel the Elder, maybe from more than 2,000 years ago. A non-Jew showed up to his door, asking him to teach the entire Torah while the man stood on one leg.

"What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor,” Hillel is said to have replied. “That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this — go and study it!"

It’s pretty good advice. What’s my ambition as I follow my mortal path? What are my limits? What are the effects of those limits on my family, my readers? What would be hateful to me, do not do to my neighbor.

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And what benefits could I still be generating? I’ve learned and am continuing to learn about the effects that GBM is having and may later have on me. I’m trying to make decisions that will affect my choices down that road. No question that McCain needs to be doing the same.

I’m guessing that this ain’t exactly a new issue for him.

His physical and psychological sacrifices in the military were not simple. He’s 80 years old, which is a near view of mortality for pretty much everyone to consider. And whether I agreed with his continuing moral standards or his political decisions – I have not, in many cases — I’m surely not going to use his GBM as a hammer to whack his thinking now.

Many Americans belong to faiths that have clear theological teachings about how to respect others. Whether we agree with their policies, fashions, approaches. If they demonstrate their respect to others, if they exercise civility, if they are clear in their view of transcendent morality and secular laws, then they’re earning how they should be treated. Agree with them or not.

May McCain find his best path and be an example for others! We could use the help.

(Jeffrey Weiss writes the RNS column “My Way to the Egress.”  The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service)


  1. this jackal of a “dr” shows not only that she is unfit to hold office, but she is unfit as a doctor, and most importantly basic human sympathy. Hope her career goes the way of the Hindenburg.

  2. How can you discuss McCain’s health and not mention his votes to take away health insurance from others?

  3. Update

    “The latest attempt to repeal the Obama-era healthcare act has failed after a dramatic night in the US Senate.
    At least three Republicans – John McCain, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski – voted against the bill, which needed a simple majority to pass.” – BBC News

    For some of us at least (perhaps all?), a stage 4 diagnosis concentrates the mind and impinges on our priorities.

    Full disclosure, mine’s merely prostate and, unlike many less fortunate, I’ve a few years yet unless something else gets me first.

  4. Having a GBM definitely limits your choices but McCain is a strong man with a history of looking death in the face. He has confronted it often, both on a physical and political stage. Nobody has the right to tell him anything, especially a vanquished rival who is salivating over his seat.

  5. He voted against the skinny bill early this morning.

  6. Another excellent and thoughtful essay Mr. Weiss. Would that others of your profession might seek to emulate you. And yet, if I may, without appearing to disparage you, wonder if you would have demonstrated this same degree of thoughtfulness prior to your present condition. This speculation is not a reflection on you personally, but rather on your chosen profession. It is amazing how, when one is confronted with the situation in which you presently reside, ones’ mind focuses and concentrates most profoundly.

  7. Osteopath’s are of limited legitimate medical character in any case.

  8. I’m sure he’s losing sleep over it. I don’t agree with all of his politics but as a human being he has my sympathy.

  9. We do not have an oligarchy of superior enlightened individuals ruling us, we have elected officials representing us. The question is did he represent the will of the majority of the people of his state or not.

  10. I see John McCain as someone you can disagree with, but when you do you automatically make yourself ask and answer the question why do we disagree. I happen to agree with John McCain often but I admire that trait in the people I don’t often agree with. It is a sign of honesty character and trust. The article does a great job of shining a light on that written by someone who admittedly did not often agree with Mr McCain.
    Thank you for that, thank you for being that example, we need it.

  11. Under the circumstances, this might be a good time for Mr. Weiss to go ahead and canonize Ted Kennedy as well. I believe the two senators were quite fond of each other. Truly birds of a feather, as it turns out.

  12. Yes, my sister was just fine until she collapsed and died 10 months after diagnosis. McCain has less than a year. He should spend it with his family instead of putting them on the back burner as he has most of his life. It might also be a good idea to get right with God. THAT is what he should be concerned with now. Oh, by the way: Kelli Ward not only is an excellent candidate, she will take McCain’s spot or defeat McCain-light Jeff (the) Flake in his election.

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