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Writing about cancer and dying: Laurie Becklund and Oliver Sacks

henry+laurie-iris.jpgHenry Weinstein talks about his wife, Laurie Becklund, at her memorial service Sunday at Hollywood Forever. Photo: Iris Schneider.

On Sunday morning, what looked to be more than 300 people gathered at Hollywood Forever cemetery to say goodbye to Laurie Becklund. The journalist and former LA Times reporter died Feb. 8 after doing battle with metastatic breast cancer for six years. The speakers included Boge Gebre, the founder of KMG Ethiopia, who talked about the sadness her death brought to many in Ethiopia who knew Laurie's work to help end female genital mutilation. Isabel Cardenas, a Salvadoran activist, talked about Laurie's reporting in the 1980s on right-wing death squads in El Salvador and said she had so much courage that if she had been Salvadoran Cardenas is sure that Becklund would have been "a guerrilla commander." The audience included dozens of present and past investigative reporters, foreign correspondents and editors, many former Times colleagues, and friends Zev Yaroslavsky and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Other speakers included the former Times editor at large Jim Newton, former LAT food editor Ruth Reichl, and Becklund's daughter Elizabeth Weinstein. Henry Weinstein, Becklund's husband of more than three decades, recalled her disappointment that Times editors refused to publish some of her strongest revelations about the death squads. The service took place under a tent not far from the Chandler Gardens portion of the cemetery where the former Times publishers Harrison Gray Otis and Harry Chandler are buried.

Weinstein also described Laurie's efforts to dig up every shred of information she could find on breast cancer and to activate the medical world to take more interest in patients with metastatic breast cancer, such as her. And he exhorted his fellow mourners to never again support the Susan G. Komen organization with their donations.

That was also one of the subjects of Laurie's final piece, which runs Sunday on the op-ed page of the Los Angeles Times. "I am dying, literally, at my home in Hollywood, of metastatic breast cancer, the only kind of breast cancer that kills," she begins. "For six years I've known I was going to die. I just didn't know when."

Promise me you'll never wear a pink ribbon in my name or drop a dollar into a bucket that goes to breast cancer “awareness” for “early detection for a cure,” the mantra of fund-raising juggernaut Susan G. Komen, which has propagated a distorted message about breast cancer and how to “cure” it.

I'm proof that early detection doesn't cure cancer. I had more than 20 mammograms, and none of them caught my disease. In fact, we now have significant studies showing that routine mammogram screening, which may result in misdiagnoses, unnecessary treatment and radiation overexposure, can harm more people than it helps….


I demanded the truth, always, from my doctors. I was a reporter who needed facts to plan whatever life I had left. I would not live in denial. But I was too scared, too private to tell anyone except my husband, my daughter and three friends. My very cells suddenly became my most intimate secrets….

The medical establishment tells me I have “failed” a number of therapies. That's not right: The establishment and its therapies have failed me. The system we live in as metastatic breast cancer patients is simply not designed to deal with the cycle we are living and dying in. The estimated 40,000 women (and a few men) who die annually can't wait years for FDA-approved, “gold standard” clinical trials. We're dying now.

Another quarter-million Americans are estimated to be waiting in the wings. I say “estimated” because no one is required to report a metastatic diagnosis. Death certificates normally report symptoms such as “respiratory failure,” not the actual disease. We are literally uncounted.

I read this just a couple of days after Oliver Sacks, the brilliant writer about the brain and other subjects, published his own remarkable personal story of imminent death on the op-ed page of the New York Times. Sacks is 81 — Becklund was 66 — and likely has longer to go than Laurie did when she began writing her story. Both deserve your eyeballs. "Between pieces by @OliverSacks and Laurie Becklund, I feel like I have read some of the best end-of-life reflections in a long time," health writer Charles Ornstein tweeted.

A sample from Sacks' story:

A month ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver…

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

Sacks is a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine. He did his residency at UCLA in the early 1960s and wrote that interesting piece in the New Yorker a couple of years ago about discovering psychedelic drugs while living in Topanga Canyon back then.

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