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Her own terms

Ashley Osment at home Photo by Ava Barlow

Ashley Osment confronts cancer and the merits of positive thinking

Staff Writer

Ashley Osment isn’t by nature a book-burner. In fact, last month the Chapel Hill-Carrboro branch of the NAACP presented its Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award to Osment, a civil-rights lawyer, for having spent her adult life defending the constitutional rights of any and all to live, work and express themselves reasonably undeterred.

But Bernie Siegel, author of the 1986 bestseller Love, Medicine & Miracles and coiner of such mass-consumed aphorisms as “The simple truth is that happy people generally don’t get sick,” makes Osment want to undo it all. After reading one of his books, she says, “I just wanted to have a book burning, of Bernie Siegel’s positive thinking.”

Not that she ever would. But that she would even consider book burning is testament to the anger Osment sometimes feels, unapologetically, at the twisted victimization to which people with cancer are routinely subjected: The suggestion that if you aren’t getting better, it’s your own fault, and the attendant commercialization, the commoditization, of her cancer.

“There are just all these demeaning, very gender-based symbols,” Osment says of all the pink ribbons and cuddly bears. “‘Hold this and think positively, because, damn it, you caused your own cancer by not being positive.’ That really [ticks] me off.”

“I think that you can be miserable,” she says, “and it’s a mistake to let your misery define your last experience on Earth.”

There are ways, Osment believes, to express the pain and fear, the despair in contemplating the very real possibility of your 13-year-old daughter growing into womanhood without you along to witness and guide – to carry all those things and allow them to comingle with, and better inform, the joy and wonder and vast awareness of yourself that has emerged from this experience. There’s room for it all.

And while Osment – 46 years old and two years, eight months now with cancer – can appreciate the good intentions behind the admonitions she receives most every day to “keep fighting,” she would like to make it known that despite how she may verbalize it, she is fighting – that six rounds of conventional cancer therapies, chemotherapy and radiation; and the alternative treatments, the high-dose intravenous vitamin C, massive ingestions of nutritional supplements, the fermented soy and repeated fasting – that these should be pretty clear indications that she’s fighting like hell.

She’ll smile when she can and when she pleases. She smiles quite often. But she’ll grimace when the pain in her hip, where the cancer has now spread, overwhelms her, as it has persistently for months now. Sometimes positively, at others pessimistically, she ponders her reality, and here’s how she’s come to see it:

“You can take two identical cancer patients, with the identical cancer, have them do identically the same thing, and their outcomes will be really different,” Osment said in a video produced by the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, where she’s received much of her care. “The most positive person in the world could kick over in two months and a curmudgeon lives for 20 years.

“So this whole thing about mind over matter, I think, misses the mark in terms of the complexity of the enemy here.”

“I’m furious.”

Cancer fights dirty. On July 2, 2007, when Osment was first diagnosed with carcinosarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of ovarian cancer, she was told her chances of recovery were nine in 10. On July 30, 2008, her CT scan revealed a metastasis to her lungs. “The summary is that the news of my cancer recurrence brings a statistically bad prognosis and an indefinite future of cancer treatment,” she wrote to friends at the time. “I have too many tumors for surgery, so chemotherapy – carboplatin, taxol and avastin – are the conventional things I’m throwing at this.”

“The news was unexpected,” she said recently, in the Chapel Hill home she shares with her husband, civil-rights attorney Al McSurely, and daughter Sunny. She’s propped gingerly on the living room couch, an unsuccessful attempt at alleviating the incessant pain in her hip. Her eyes burn – the fire of Ashley Osment that everyone who’s known her knows well, now refined. “They had told me I had a better than 90 percent chance of no recurrence, because my cancer was caught very early.”

In the Lineberger video, Osment spoke of the occasion of learning she had cancer as a “discrete” event.

That was the lawyer in Osment speaking. “In the law,” she explains, “a discrete fact is an isolated thing.” Being the practical, purposeful person that she is, that would be the way she would view it – as a thing to be dealt with and discarded.

But it would pretty much change everything.

“I basically don’t even remember life before cancer,” she says. In fact, she’s no longer even certain who that woman in the Lineberger video is, the Ashley Osment of several treatments ago.

Is she angry? “I’m furious.” How so? “You name it. I mean, it’s stolen everything. It’s going to steal me from my daughter.”

Sunny is fully aware of what her mother is living. There’s no hiding it. She knows how many milligrams of Oxycontin her mom takes. She and her mom are very connected. Osment couldn’t deceive her if she wanted to.

“I used to be a little more confident that it was just making her stronger,” Osment says of Sunny’s experience with her mother’s cancer, “and now I’m worried that it’s getting traumatic. It’s gone on too long, and I’m just getting beat up. And I worry. It’s not like a household with domestic violence, but it’s traumatizing.”

But Osment wants her daughter to learn from this that she can survive cancer – she doesn’t want her to think everybody with cancer dies – a complicated message to convey. The everyday, concrete things are salvation. There are bookshelves, built by a friend’s husband, soon to be lined with books that influenced Osment and her friends between the ages of 13 and 23. And anticipation over whether Sunny will make the McDougle Middle School soccer team; no easy feat.

Exploring options

Cancer arrived in Osment’s life just as she was coming into her own in her work.

“I had figured out how to be a lawyer at McSurely & Osment, and had really reached my stride when I moved over to the law school.”

In 2005, she took a position at the UNC Center for Civil Rights, where “my marching orders at the Center for Civil Rights were general and massive.” Osment was charged with building the center into a regional hub for advocacy, litigation and research in addressing school desegregation in the 21st century. “So there was just so much work to be done, and I was just one person, so you have to get really skilled at prioritizing what you do and who you do it with, and I was just starting to figure all that out. So that got stolen from me. It was a job I was born to do.”

Perhaps she’ll yet recover. But Osment equates the probability of being cured by the modalities currently being used as roughly “equivalent to spontaneous combustion. I hate to say that. But I don’t believe my saying it makes it so.”

Osment’s assessment of her prognosis doesn’t keep her from volunteering for clinical trials. She’s open to the possibility that some new therapy will be discovered that will save her life or lead to treatment that saves lives in the next generation, “And I’ll be all over that like a dog on a bone.”

And there are places she sometimes goes to explore her own healing potential.

“A friend of mine brought over an anatomy book full of beautiful drawings by this Japanese artist of body parts. And I’ve looked at the body parts where my cancer is.… And so when I meditate, I think about those places getting well, and not hurting.”

She acknowledges there are contradictions to her approach. On the one hand, she says she doesn’t believe we yet understand the relationship between the brain and healing. “There are plenty of people who are very skilled meditators who die of cancer. I guess what I’d like to do is not be hampered in any way in my exploration of meditation practices, and at the same time not be asked to give up my utter disdain for any blame being put on a cancer patient for their condition. I think everything is dumb luck. Even if maybe you figure out some meditation technique or connection that heals you, it’s dumb luck.

“There’s just so much opportunity to blame the victim, and there’s no more vulnerable population than people who have cancer and are suffering….

“The idea that you would be flat on your back and then be blamed for it at the same time is just unconscionable.”

And the notion of going gently? “You read, ‘Emma Grace died of cancer … and not once in five years did she ever complain.’ How is that possible? I just don’t get it. I cannot imagine not complaining about all the insults and injuries of cancer. What would lead you to not complain?”

In the Lineberger interview, Osment said: “My personal style is not to repress the anger or the depression or the fear, but to not let it become the defining quality of how I live my life as a person with cancer. I really do my very best to acknowledge those feelings, but then do what I can do, right now. So that’s different. Because it used to be I think I would indulge my emotional extremes, before cancer, more than I indulge them now. Now I don’t have time; I don’t have time and I also don’t have the space for the emotional hit of living in the bad moments. They do happen. They’ve got to happen. I let them happen.”

‘What is the fight?’

Awhile back, Osment wrote to friends, “I will do anything and everything I know to do to stay alive for as long as I can. But I also want to prepare for a peaceful death, whether it’s this year, next year, or years far in the future.”

“Once you have cancer, you have a full-time job,” the Ashley Osment of seven months ago told her Lineberger interviewer. “But on top of that, you’ve got the reason you were put on this Earth. I wasn’t put on this Earth to fight cancer.”

“What is the fight?” Osment asks today. “I think the presumption is that if I don’t have a strong will, it’s going to get me; but if I do have a strong will, it slows the cancer down. I don’t know that there’s any evidence to support that. At some point, you’re just being kept alive to be bullied around some more with another medical procedure.”

For now though, bullying it will be; the treatments continue. There will be days of rage at what’s been taken, and days of elation for what life yet holds: Sunny made the soccer team.

9 Responses

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  1. Carol Curran

    Thanks for a fine article. I applaud Taylor Sisk, Ava Barlow and especially Ashley Osment!

  2. Karen Rudolph

    I think that we want to believe that happy, organic, spiritual, positive, good…fill in the blank…people can beat cancer because we want to believe that we are in control of our lives. We want to believe that we ourselves won’t become the victims of random fate. That belief sells books, herbal suplements, and new age cd’s. Ill people don’t need to feel guilty about not being able to heal themselves. We are animals with physical bodies. We can do some things to up the odds of survival but ultimately we are powerless over many huge life changing events. That is the terrible truth that most of us want to avoid facing. The kindest thing we can do when a person has cancer is deal with our own fears of mortality without projecting them onto the person who is sick. Instead offer to drive them to a doctor’s appointment or cook a meal for their family. That will help more than more self serving advice about positive thinking.

  3. Brenda Denzler

    This was a wonderful article about a magnificent person.

    Last July I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, the rarest and most aggressive form of breast cancer, with the worst prognosis. I wasn’t sure I could do it — could be a cancer patient. What was about to happen to me in treatment was beyond comprehension. It all seemed so evil, so difficult.

    Then mutual friends introduced me to Ashley. She was the first person I met who was actively battling cancer.

    I sat down across the table from her outside of Weaver Street Market and asked her, wearily, “Do you ever get tired of yourself, as a cancer patient? Do you ever just get tired of having to think about this, study up on that, decide about this other thing, figure out how to cope with something else….? Do you ever get tired of having to be SO MUCH the center of your own universe, all of a sudden? Because I’m exhausted! I’m just sick of me!”

    Ashley’s eyes lit up and she said something–I forget what. But it was immensely affirming. I felt an instant connection. She knew what I was talking about. Immediately. And I knew I’d found someone who could show me how to do this. How to walk down this road that I really had to travel if I was going to try to live. And how to live, while I walked down it.

    I walked away from Ashley that day. It was a warm day, the sun was out, and the wind felt good coming in the open windows as I drove down the highway toward home. For the first time since I was diagnosed, I actually felt good inside. I remember the very place on the highway where I thought, “OK. I can do this. I think I can do this. If that is what it means to be a cancer patient, then I think I can do this.”

    Ashley helped me believe in myself and move forward at just about the worst time in my whole life. She was the first person who showed me how to live with fighting cancer. She’s been my cancer mentor ever since.

  4. Claire Kirch

    I have a 12-year-old daughter and Ashley is living my worst nightmare: leaving my child too soon. Ashley & I have had our differences in the past, but one thing I always respected about her was that she was always a fighter. I admire her refusal to go gently into that good night, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas — Ashley Osment is an example to all of us on how to live our lives and I hope the best for her and her daughter. No matter what happens, Sunny McSurely is always going to know her mother had a lot of courage.

  5. Ava Barlow

    My compliments to Taylor for this excellent story! Ashley is one of the most positive-thinking people I know. She has helped so many people because of her positive attitude which leads to positive action on her part. She is also very truthful and realistic. I appreciate that so much. While a positive attitude can be very helpful in a situation like this, it is not necessarily the cure. Sometimes things just happen that we have no ultimate control over. The things that Ashley is demonstrating control over — her attitude of trying her hardest to do what she can to fight the cancer, but accepting the truth of the pain and the fact that she just might not win the fight, along with appreciating and loving her daughter, husband, family and friends as much as she can, are things we can all learn from and try to follow. Thanks, Ashley.

  6. Nancy Miller

    What a precious article to find today. My sister finished her journey on 8/14/04, but her birthday is tomorrow 3/24. I can’t see to type through my tears. Ashley, the only good that comes from fighting cancer is that you live long enough to know how many people truly love and appreciate you and… please, above all revel in your uniqueness. You have touched the hearts of people you don’t even know. How many of us can say that? You have a new friend.

  7. Janet Elbetri

    Taylor Sisk is a gifted writer who pulled out of Ashley Osment that tender complexity of feelings — the anger, the irreverence, the sadness, the wilfulness, the sincere desire to fight, the uncertainty over whether fighting will bring the desired cure — that is so easy to oversimplify. Ashley is my friend, and I don’t like to congratulate her on her attitude, because I feel she is entitled to NOT have to fight so hard, to NOT have to be Miss Perfect Cancer Patient. I understand what Ashley means when she talks about that sort of patronizing cuddly-bear thing we do as a society when we elevate someone who has been through something difficult to a pedestal where we can look up and admire him or her, saying, “wow, look how different that person is from me!” It must be very isolating. Ashley is doing what most of us would do: she is fighting in the way that works for her. Others might choose different weapons, but humans naturally have a will to survive, and so Ashley is doing what her cave-woman genes are telling her to do: fight. As any of us would. I don’t mean to minimize what is really cool and special about Ashley — it is just that those qualities were there before the cancer arrived, and they are, indeed things I appreciate about her. Her badassiness, for example.

    Me? I have suffered my fair share of sufferings and I really feel odd when people tell me how proud of me they are for how I handled this or that. I think to myself, “but I didn’t WANT a this or that to have had to handle so well!” Like, “you did a great job climbing up that cliff with your fingernails,” and I want to say, “yes, but I still think it is awful that I fell off the cliff in the first place — it really scared me!” They might reply, “but you were so strong, and courageous!” And I’d answer, “wouldn’t you, too, have dug your fingers into the rocky dirt to pull yourself up?”

    And the answer is always Maybe. Maybe yes, and maybe no. Is it dumb luck, as Ashley suggests? Might it be that the section of dirt my fingers plunged into also, somehow, contained a few strong roots I could cling to? Or was it the sheer strength of the muscles in my wrist and hand? I don’t know. All I know is that it was hard, and I might have preferred sitting on a couch watching stupid television shows.

  8. Lucy Harris

    Rest in Peace Ashley Osment~~~~~~~you were a powerful inspiration to many!!!

  9. Simone

    I am so sorry that Ashley is gone. I was not one of her closest friends but for more than 15 years I have counted on her in many and most calls for social justice both universal and local.

    Her disappearance – along with Yonnie Chapman and Dan Pollitt – will change the balance of the moral compass of my world. Let’s all look to their memory for inspiration.

    I hope that Sunny will grow up to be a strong woman with a flash of pride whenever she thinks of her mother.