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NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks to reporters in Toronto on May 3, 2011, after bringing his party to Official Opposition status for the first time in its history. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks to reporters in Toronto on May 3, 2011, after bringing his party to Official Opposition status for the first time in its history. (Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Gary Mason

For Jack Layton, full disclosure meant killing hope Add to ...

When the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge sat down with Olivia Chow days after the death of her husband, Jack Layton, it wasn’t long before the subject of the cancer that killed the popular politician came up.

Before his death, the NDP leader refused to reveal the specific nature of the disease, although he said it was unrelated to the prostate cancer he had been diagnosed with 17 months earlier. But when you took one look at him at his July 25 news conference, you knew that whatever it was it wasn’t good and that his days seemed numbered.

Many presumed that, after he died, we’d find out exactly what kind of cancer it was. But Ms. Chow made it clear that wasn’t going to happen. It was, she said, a choice made by her husband so “the hopes of other cancer patients suffering from the same illness” would not be dashed.

Like many, I wanted to know what the cancer was. But when I heard Ms. Chow’s explanation for not releasing the information, it made perfect, compassionate sense.

Not everyone agrees.

Lorne Brandes, an oncologist who often deals with patients with prostate cancer, wrote in an article posted on CTV’s website on Tuesday that, in the “overall context of the information gap surrounding specific details of Jack Layton’s illness, Ms. Chow’s answer seems ingenuous at best, and evasive at worst.” In Dr. Brandes’s opinion, Mr. Layton, given his position, should have disclosed the nature of the new cancer.

In general, I concur. The public has the right to know whether their political leaders have serious medical problems. If Mr. Layton knew he had an advanced form of a new cancer before the last federal election campaign began, he should have divulged it. He indicated he didn’t know.

Perhaps he decided against identifying the cancer at his July news conference because he was aware of how he looked and the slim odds he faced, and didn’t want to scare others with the same form of the disease. But that’s a moot point, anyway. The question now is: Does the public have a right to know the type of cancer that killed Mr. Layton?

I’m of an age now where I think about cancer far more than I should. I’ve had family members stricken with it and dear friends, too. Every time I hear about someone I know being diagnosed with cancer, I flinch. Cancer is a crapshoot. The healthiest people with no family history of the disease can be stricken. Often, it makes no sense.

I don’t believe that most of those dealing with cancer want to know what type killed Mr. Layton. Neither does Nancy Payeur. She’s a social worker and counsellor to cancer patients on Vancouver Island. She says the people she deals with every day are extremely touchy about stories involving others who have the disease.

“I think Jack had an insight into the fact there is a hypersensitivity among cancer patients and that they are very vulnerable,” says Ms. Payeur. “They’re looking for optimism and, depending on the type of cancer they have, it can often be in short supply.”

All cancers are different. Comparing cancers with the same name can be dangerous. Therapy that doesn’t work for one person may work for another.

I asked a friend who was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago what he thought of Mr. Layton’s stand. He agreed with it. He didn’t think any public good could be served by disclosing the exact nature of the disease. “If people saw Jack Layton at that news conference, and knew they had the same cancer he had, their first reaction would have been: ‘I’m a goner.’ ”

And he’s right.

Cancer is cancer. The prognosis for some people with the disease is better than others. But people don’t know what it’s like to live with it until they do.

All that cancer patients have is hope. And that hope fades a little every time a cancer patient hears about someone dying with the same strain of the disease they have.

Jack Layton understood that.

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Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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