We don’t like to talk about death. If someone close to you has died, you are no doubt familiar with the awkwardness that follows that revelation. The reasons are varied but probably fall somewhere between most of us living in rampant denial that death will strike and being completely unsure what it even means to actually die.
And because it happens so rarely, when someone talks about it publicly, we take notice. Earlier this month, the sports broadcasting world lost a true fighter in Stuart Scott. Scott was a onetime ESPN SportsCenter anchor and host of Monday Night Countdown during the NFL season.
Scott, who was only 49 years old, was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, but only made his battle public in 2012, when he began to share details of how he balanced his treatment with his work at ESPN. In an interview with USA Today in 2013, Scott declared that he was not a courageous man, and he admitted to being scared. But that’s where I think he was wrong. To talk about death, and specifically, to talk about being scared to die, was an incredibly courageous act.
Since his death, a speech Scott made at last year’s ESPY awards, has gone viral. One particular quote has made the rounds: “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live. So live. Live. Fight like hell.”
It’s highly likely that before Stuart Scott died, you didn’t know who he was. But the conversation that he started—a difficult conversation at best and a nightmare conversation at worst—is an important one. Although he kept the news of his cancer diagnosis fairly quiet for many years, he had a desire to change how we talk about cancer. As do many others. Robin Roberts of Good Morning America and also a former ESPN newscaster has been open with her diagnosis of and battle with cancer, choosing to speak up and out in an effort to raise awareness.
Death is a painful subject. Death caused by cancer, is particularly painful for many. For some, talking about it is simply too hard. That’s why we must remember to be careful about these discussions and remember that not everyone is ready to hear your story. But for others, conversations about living with—and yes, dying from—cancer can be extremely helpful.
As health communicators, it remains our role to share accurate information and educate the public about important health topics. But it’s also our role to remain human and remember that the people we talk to and about are humans too. Stuart Scott’s untimely death is one more reminder that life isn’t fair. It’s also a reminder—at least for me—that we can be moved by the death of someone we didn’t know and that talking (or writing) about it can be a way to start the healing and dealing.