Austin Brimley running during Colon Cancer run in DC 2018
Things That Suck

Guns and Cancer

After Shawn died, my friends Ilan and Phil organized a group to participate in the Colon Cancer Run here in DC. There were hundreds of people who showed up and the event raised thousands of dollars. As I was running with the kids that day, I thought about how supported and loved I felt. When I turned the corner mid-way through the run, I saw the Capitol and snapped this cover photo of our oldest boy – number 5008 – running towards it.

I thought about this moment when I first saw news of the shooting last weekend at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Of course, I was horrified. And because of my newfound relationship with grief, I thought primarily about those left behind – especially the widows and widowers.

The outrage on social media was apparent, just as it is after every mass shooting. But there was also silence from so many, especially from political leaders who expressed sadness but offered no action. Not everyone was quiet, mind you, and I know there are still many groups and individuals fighting for sensible gun laws, including my friend and neighbor, Senator Chris Murphy.

And yet.

Everyone from both sides of the aisle supports cancer research. Sure, maybe some politicians focus on it more than others, but no one says to me, “it’s so horrible that your husband died from colon cancer. I wish it had been preventable, but it’s just impossible to do a lot when we really don’t know who is going to get cancer. He didn’t have a family history of cancer. The only thing that could have saved him is if he had thought to get a colonoscopy – and it’s really his fault that he didn’t.”

People don’t say that. Instead, if we’re talking about how to prevent cancer deaths, they talk about raising money for cancer research and they point to the innovative new ideas that are keeping people from getting cancer or treating them once they have it. They don’t think my husband should have prevented his own cancer. Almost everyone thinks that society should do more research, more fundraising, more outreach.

But I hear all the time (and I heard from our president last weekend) that the victims of gun violence should protect themselves. That it is not up to our society to pass sensible gun laws, but rather that there should be greater security at our schools and our places of worship. That we should – God forbid – arm teachers and put metal detectors at the doors of religious institutions.

When I hear this, I think about how insane that all sounds. I mean, we’re talking about people who were trying to worship God when they were killed.

Yes, it was a madman who killed those innocent people. It was also an aggressive form of colon cancer that killed my husband. But no one is throwing up their hands and saying that it was Shawn’s fault he died. No one is blaming him for not getting screened earlier for cancer. No one is saying that there’s really nothing that can be done to end cancer. Instead, people raise money to fight colon cancer. Doctors take that money and invest it in research and find out ways to prevent my kids from getting that same cancer.

As Shawn lay dying in the hospital, there was a doctor that talked to us about his terrible prognosis. “I know this is all very difficult to hear,” the doctor said as I cried and he stoically listened, “but what I want you to know is this: when we operated on you, we took the cancerous portion of your colon out. We are going to use it to study more about colon cancer and to figure out how to keep more people from dying.”

When my kids turn 30, they will have to start getting regular colonoscopies. I can’t allow myself to think too much about their genetics and the possibility that something could happen to them. But I know this – the doctors at NIH are working towards a cure. Our government funds NIH. People raise money for colon cancer research. There might be a cure someday. No one just has “thoughts and prayers” for colon cancer.

So what I actually worry about is the fact that my kids have to practice active shooter drills at school. What I actually worry about is the fact that we go to a church with absolutely no security at the door. What I actually worry about are all the kids who aren’t white and Christian and have even more risks that they face every day just because of who they are.

I can’t believe that I live in a country where we do the best research in the world on how to prevent cancer but the CDC can’t research gun control and Congress can’t manage to implement common sense gun laws.

Maybe Shawn’s cancer and our numerous gun tragedies aren’t related. But as Americans, our response should be the same. We should say “no more!” and do what needs to be done to stop these horrors. I’m tired of hiding in a corner of my classroom with my students, insisting that they remain quiet.

I’m done with silence.

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