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In a recent op-ed about the Biden administration’s forthcoming vaccine regulations, Governor Mark Gordon wrote, “Big government is a cancer.” As a woman who has lived with metastatic breast cancer for over three years, I am disturbed by this cruel and inept metaphor. It doesn’t strengthen the governor’s argument, continues to stigmatize cancer and those with cancer and only serves to inflame the political polarization in our country right now. 

I understand the temptation to use this metaphor. As defined by the New Oxford American Dictionary, cancer is an “uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body.” To a small-government advocate believing that uncontrolled government growth leads to profound dysfunction, loss of individual rights and a sick society, the comparision’s appeal is obvious. 

But taking a closer look at cancer reveals the cruelty of the metaphor. Although some types of the all-too-common malady can be cured and other types of cancer can be managed so that people can live longer, it still kills way too many Americans and Wyomingites. It is a scary disease often treated with invasive procedures like surgery and life changing therapies like chemotherapy and radiation. Uncertainty dominates the lives of those with cancer as they wonder about the cancer returning and leading to their death. Indeed, although this is changing, the word “cancer” has been difficult for many to even utter and is often shortened to “the C word.”  

Putting aside the argument about whether government should be big or small, government is our collective effort to better society. Indeed, the United States Constitution, which we revere regardless of party affiliation, starts with one of our most well-known and oft repeated sentences:  “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” It’s an aspirational sentence, and we clearly do not always meet this ideal, but this is what our federal government is all about: A collective approach to ensure we all have a chance at safe, happy and productive lives. 

In contrast, cancer’s ultimate outcome is destruction, decay and death. Believe me, government, despite our differing ideas about how big or small it should be, is nothing like cancer. Neither side of the aisle has killing our citizens as its goal. Nor should government be feared in the way that cancer is feared. And I only wish that my cancer somehow wanted me to have a safe and happy life.

Further examination of the metaphor beneath the sound bite may be instructive. Ironically, we often think of cancer as the enemy, the other that must be fought. However, cancer cells are our own cells gone rogue. They are us. Moreover, in cancer, microenvironments within our bodily tissues can impact the development and spread of these abnormal cells. These microenvironments can be healthy, suppressing and stopping abnormal cell growth. Or they can be unhealthy and allow for uncontrolled cell division. 

“We the People” are truly divided in ways I have not seen in my lifetime. Far too many of us see those in the opposing party as other, something to be fought. We can choose to continue to let our microenvironments, our Wyoming communities, deteriorate by promoting uncontrolled division and fighting over issues that do not benefit us over the long term. Or we can choose to support communities to allow for vibrant growth and health. This requires asking a different question. Not about what size government should be, but how to maintain an effective government that partners with business, nonprofits, foundations and other segments of our society to advance the goals articulated by the founders in that first sentence of the Constitution.  

We have strong libertarian tendencies in Wyoming; however, we can all agree that having a functioning government that ”promotes the general Welfare” is a good thing. We value safe roads and bridges, well-trained firefighters, public education and regulations that protect us from foodborne diseases because they improve our lives. These are not government actions to be feared or dreaded. Government, done right, gives us the freedoms we cherish — freedoms both to and from — that are often denied in other countries. There are other areas of government involvement in health care, child care and climate change that should be thoughtfully considered as we continue to pursue the lofty goals of our Constitution.

Governor Gordon, words do matter. I urge you to think about the words that you choose, especially during these polarized times. Government, regardless of its size, is NOT a cancer. Cancer kills, government supports. The “best” cancer is one that evades treatment, spreads rapidly and kills effectively. The best government is not the smallest nor the largest, but one that meets the goals articulated by the founders in the Constitution. As an elected leader it is your job to work toward those goals. Today, it is especially important to do so in a manner which directs us toward domestic tranquility rather than purposely inflaming polarization with the cancer metaphor.

Mary E. Burman

Mary E. Burman is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Wyoming where she worked for 28 years before retiring in 2020. She served as Dean of the Fay W. Whitney School of Nursing for 11 years. She’s...

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  1. Very well said Mary. I totally agree and it is a good example of why we are so divided today. Issues are not things to be resolved. They provide reasons for personal attacks and hateful interaction. Words do matter as does empathy and understanding for those around us. I only hope we all see it start to turn around to a place where we can once again disagree, discuss differing viewpoints, and work on solutions together. Thank you for making us think about the impact of our words.

  2. I thought the whole gist of Gov. Gordon’s opinion piece was coarse. He showed his hand in who he is and in the way he thinks more than anything I’ve seen about him.

  3. Thank you. In these times when EVERY word can be taken out of context and used to hit the other side over the head, it is nice to see that there are folks who are trying to see pass the “traffic” and want government to work for us.

  4. Well written Mary Burman. My way of thinking dovetails yours. There is a divide in politics in our country where the right thinks that government is not good and the left that thinks government can do good things. I read Gordon’s opinion piece also. The thing that stuck out for me was his reference to Malcolm Wallop and Wallop’s opposition to OSHA. I can remember when Wallop first ran for the U.S. Senate and he made an issue out of the OSHA Law. Governor Gordon probably never worked under OSHA rules but I did for 40 years and it was a good thing for me and my co-workers. Irregardless of the enforcement of the law the best thing that it did was to provide a blueprint for the creation of safe working practices in the industries that it covers. The amount of injuries and deaths it prevented are too many to count. It’s not about politics it’s about coming home every day safely. People fail to see that in the proposed Covid vaccine mandates that OSHA will promulgate. I guess the word coming from Cheyenne is every man for himself.

  5. To quote a movie from years ago…. Invest in canned food and shotgun shells.
    The Democrats have guaranteed a Mad Max scenario and don’t have the brains to see it coming.

  6. Mary, as always, beautifully written and impactful. Proud to have you as a resident of Wyoming who speaks the truth with eloquence. Knowing you from days past of Wyoming Women’s Foundation, Wyoming Healthcare Commission and the Wyoming State Children’s Health Insurance Program speaks to the volume of hands on knowledge you bring to many issues in Wyoming.

  7. “There are other areas of government involvement in health care, child care and climate change that should be thoughtfully considered . . .”

    No thanks. Communism is the cancer.

    “Conservatives are red
    Communists are blue
    The goal of Communism
    Is to control you!”

  8. “Neither side of the aisle has killing our citizens as its goal.”
    This statement cannot be further from the truth. Abortion is the act of killing citizens of our society before they have a chance to breath. Anyone or party who supports these policies embraces the very goal presented here.

  9. A truly responsive and effective government is what everyone wants. Not one that is likened to a cancer. Living with cancer can be a crapshoot. Living with government shouldn’t be the same. Thank you Mary Burman.

      1. If only Will Geer had got the drop on him. Them’s purty teeth.
        I’m topped off on Drake’s thread so I wanted you to know I have no time for Twitter or Facebook. There are far better resources for finding out what you need to know. An open mind and an eager curiosity will do wonders. Asking God for knowledge is the first step. Man is an ignorant fool. The truth is just around the bend.

          1. Great minds organically come to similar conclusions. Democrats cannot grasp that concept. It’s how multiple inventors came up with radio and the light bulb. If Dems had their way we would be using candles and smoke signals, assuming they hadn’t banned fire as racist. Haven’t looked at Twitter in years. Longer for Fakebook. Once I left the Democrat plantation I had no use for the constant propaganda and censorship benefiting the DNC.

          2. The “great” minds you’re referencing all post lies, misinformation, and “facts” that have no basis in reality. So yes, you do resemble your dishonest heroes.

            You and your kind blame everything possible on the “team” that is not yours. It’s disingenuous and not productive. Your inability to be honest shows how extremely partisan you really are. Every problem there is (real or imagined) is not the fault of the democrats alone. If you can’t realize the damage caused by chrump and others that believe similarly as you, then you are part of the problem and not the solution.

            You truly should limit your screen time.

          3. Maybe you should “limit your screen time”? It might help with your hated of everything and everyone conservative. Debate is healthy, censorship and extremism is not.

  10. “Neither side of the aisle has killing our citizens as its goal”

    I wouldn’t be so sure.

    Putting aside COVID, one side is clearly all to happy to keep affordable medical care out of reach. And, often hell bent on keeping working-class wages stagnating. Has the same effect in the end. A lower life expectancy.

    Not that any party is better in regards to solutions. Bad policy with good intentions is no better. That is served up by both sides but all the more reverently by clueless liberals.

    It may be a metaphor, “big government is a cancer”, but the shoe fits, and, just as often, it fits with small government too.

    1. Interesting that we noticed the same statement in regards to killing citizens in the article. Your definition of wages and healthcare is extremely loose I’d argue and ignores the most obvious method citizens are killed today: clearly and without question abortion.

      1. Carson Pollatsays:

        “Your definition of wages and healthcare is extremely loose I’d argue and ignores the most obvious method citizens are killed today: clearly and without question abortion.”

        The life expectancy on native American lands in Wyoming will most likely be decades lower than yours, much of it due to poverty. If you don’t already understand the connection between life expectancy, income and access to affordable healthcare services, I am wasting my time trying to explain it here.

        I seriously doubt that you don’t care about life outside the womb but I will bet it isn’t something you speak up about with the same passion, if at all.

        As for the horrors of abortion, that’s a topic for a story about abortion. I find your comment to be totally valid for those who wish to question the author’s POV.

        1. George, I hear you. It’s certainly worth considering those with much lower quality of life in our state and the contrast in years and health we enjoy that they may not. What drives the issue much further for unborn people is their inability to speak or react, something that most of the poor you mention can do. Further, the act of killing someone is definite and has immediate consequences. While poor living conditions may lead to an early death, at least there is time for assistance and help from those who are willing.

      2. Men minding their behavior would go a long way to stopping abortion. As would a decent social safety net. But maybe blaming and shaming women in horrible situations no man will ever know is more your intent.

        1. Leah, understood. It may be difficult for myself and others to fully empathize with single mothers. At the end of the day, hard situations don’t change the reality of the loss of innocent lives.

  11. Apparently the author has never heard of hyperbole? Time to get out of that academic bubble . . . .

  12. Somehow, I can’t believe that what Mr. Gordon says is without purpose and intent. He has to know that any scientifically proven measures taken to control the virus are overall beneficial to his constituents, the people of Wyoming. However, I believe that he is hitching his wagon, as so many conservatives around the nation have, to the Trump train. Conservatives saw the political success that Trump achieved by inciting, dividing, angering a large segment of the republican party and Americans. Trump specialized in saying, doing, and supporting ridiculous words and actions. Gordon’s comparison of our government to cancer is a good example of a politician trying to politically capitalize on Trump’s success with a certain segment of vulnerable American citizens.

  13. Absolutely correct Mary. The fundamental practice of government is to do the will of the people NOT to engage in divisive behavior AGAINST the will of the people.
    Maybe Mr Gordon needs to have a lesson in civics AND medicine.
    Finally, as a cancer survivor I have had my insurance become unaffordable because of the decisions made by the state legislature; thus I find the statement made by Governor Gordon repulsive.

  14. Thank you Dr. Burman for your wise words. It’s perfect to call out our ineffective Governor who with his words and actions further push Wyoming into the dark ages.

  15. Thank you Mary. Shame on Gov. Gordon – he’s lost the forest for the trees. His comments incite hatred and fear, instead of accepting his role as leader during difficult times. Keep up the fight – my best wishes to you in your battle.

  16. Big Government is a cancer… and the bigger that cancer is.. the less healthy it’s host becomes !! The constitution is there to limit Government ! Wyofile is evidently staffed by liberals.. We the people don’t want or need a nanny state. Government done right does not run roughshod over the people who elected them. The Biden administration’s un-Constitutional mandates are NOT laws, lawfully put in place by the Will of the people !

  17. Great article Mary. Unfortunately we are in a very troubling place right now. Governor Gordon would rather use all of his power and resources to fight the Biden administration than to take care of the people of Wyoming. This is the same person that called Wyoming citizens “knuckleheads” for not wearing masks and following his mandates he put in place a year ago. This is also the same Governor that approved millions of dollars of cuts to the state budgets that affected a lot of citizens in Wyoming but is now wasting funds to sue the Federal government.

  18. Thank you so much for your wisdom and thoughtfulness, Mary. Governor Gordon can do better–in word and deed–when it comes to offering compassion and laboring for just solutions to pressing problems in Wyoming. Will he? I no longer hold out much hope. He seems to prefer the shadows of inaction.

  19. Beautifully written and so true. We are stronger together; there is too much division and far too little political courage both in Wyoming and in our nation.

    It takes courage to face cancer, a quality too often lacking in our elected officials.

  20. Your comment speaks so beautifully to many of the ills in our society right now. I, too, am a cancer survivor and appreciate your compassion and eloquence. Your comment that “words do matter” is something that we all need to take seriously during these divisive times.

    1. Hi Jana, I knew we had a lot in common, but thank you for reminding me that we are both survivors. I too am grateful for Dr. Burman’s eloquent analysis of what it means to face cancer, versus what it means to cherish, participate in, and also question our system of government.
      I feel like our nation would be much healthier if we could resist the temptation to demonize each other. Maybe that’s the cancer we should be worried about.

  21. Mary,
    Thank you! So thoughtful, I only wish we had more individuals in state and federal leadership roles that would seek a common ground and a role for government that addresses the real issues in our society.

  22. Thank you so much, Dr. Burman, for your powerful and thoughtful response to Governor Gordon’s divisive and thoughtless remarks! Oh, how I long for people who can work together for solutions in a respectful way! When those with different views of the world work on solutions, the outcome is better than either “side” could have imagined!

  23. Thank you, Mary. One can only hope your words might cause our good governor to pause a moment and reflect on his penchant for poorly crafted and unnecessarily divisive rhetoric.

  24. Thank you, Ms. Burman, for this brilliant piece. I wish every Wyomingite could read it. Once again, WyoFile publishes writing and journalism that actually engages critical thinking, broad perspective, compassion, and reality.

  25. Mary:
    As a fellow cancer survivor (prostate, in my case) I applaud your well-informed critique of governor Gordon’s flawed and overused “Big-government-is-a-cancer” verbiage. Thank you.

  26. Oh my God Professor Birman, this is amazing and perfect. Thank you for laying down the truth and saying it well. Stage 3 Lymphoma here, diagnosed last February, summer spent back and forth from Gillette to Casper for intense R-EPOCH chemo. What saved my life so far? That same federal government disparaged by Governor Gordon at the same time Wyoming sucks its teat with serious voracity. The ACA saved my life. Thank you again. You said it better than I ever could.

  27. Thank you Mary, for your thoughtful comments. It is sad when our leaders fall victim to the scare tactics of extremists which only further divide us. In WY, because of our small population, it is particularly important for all to work toward the common good.