A hopeful, open letter to Susan Collins from someone who worked hard to defeat you

I have something I would like to say to you, Senator Susan Collins.

My name is Tim Mercer. Yes, the same Mercer who's mother appeared in an ad on television opposing you this past election. And yes, the same Mercer who's brother put out multiple full page ads in the Portland Press Herald and got national attention when you refused to answer his questions in an airport a year ago. But before you tune me out, I would like you to hear me out. Some things might be hard to hear, but I assure you there is a light at the end of this tunnel.

First off, I would like to congratulate you on your decisive win over Sarah Gideon to retain your seat as senator for the great state of Maine: a state my family calls home—a place I have lived for over 10 years of my life. Even though I have disagreed with you on most issues, you have potential to be the best person for the job. Not for the senator you are right now, but for who you could be.

Over the past few days, I've discussed your voting record, position on issues and your commitment to Maine and the United States with numerous people who work with you and held positions within the walls of the state capitol in Augusta, ME. In recent years, I had become disenchanted with your ways, and full disclosure, I was going to write you an angry letter. But as I heard these people talk about you, I realized that you have their respect. The people who disagree with you had some good things to say, as did those who are more alined with you. They were all very candid, so there were no perfect scores, but that is okay. I don't trust perfect.

With every conversation I had, there was one consistent tone: hope.


You clearly have something special with the people of Maine based on your tenure as their representative spanning over two decades. Not only that, but you won convincingly as a Republican in a state that favored Democrat, Joe Biden, as their choice for the next president of the United States. You are clearly doing something right. But you have done some things wrong, too. The first thing that comes to mind is Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

This was your opportunity for that career-defining moment. But instead you voted for Kavanaugh in 2018. Eight months later, you told the New York Times you didn't regret that decision. Why? I know you received harsh criticism, and I understand where it came from. In supporting Kavanaugh, you've threatened the safety of women and their right to choose. With your pro-choice views, which we agree on, you were the Republican that should have voted against Kavanaugh. I am not sure if you were pressured or made some sort of deal with Trump, but either way it wasn't a good look.

Although you claim to be a champion for women's rights, when the national spotlight was on you, you disappointed a large amount of people. It was your chance at the big solo and we were expecting to hear this glorious note, but instead, we got Selena Gomez without the auto tune. You could have knocked it out of the park by making a decision that would forever put you down in the books for standing against alleged sexual assault. I wonder if you regret that decision now?

Then there's your bipartisan voting. It seems that you are able to boast a bipartisan voting record because you side with Democrats when your vote has no impact on the final result. That is like purposely putting your credit card down at a restaurant after someone else just footed the bill. It is a hollow gesture that has no effect on the situation, costs you nothing and makes it seem like you genuinely meant to do the right thing. When you are called out for voting the party line, you can just point to your record to show how often you have gone against the Republican narrative. Similarly, the person with the second fastest credit card reflex at an eating establishment, when accused of never picking up the tab, can always point out how many times they have tried to pay. Technically, neither of you are wrong, but I am sure you can see how it isn't right.

Another aspect of your voting that's troublesome to many is your voting record for taxing the wealthy. I was talking to a friend of mine a few weeks ago, and while he is a multi-millionaire, he says he only pays 4% in taxes. I pay over 20% (and let's just say I am not expecting an American Express Black card to show up in the mail anytime soon). According to Politicsthatwork.com, you vote to tax the wealthy only 18.2% of the time. I understand there might be a margin of error on those statistics, but I am pretty sure it isn't 81.8%. There are so many hard working people in the state of Maine and across the country who desperately need your help.

Also, I do find it strange that you haven't held a town hall meeting in 20 years. As a woman of the people, which you claim to be, I don't understand why you wouldn't be eager to hear our voices much less avoid them. Then I heard something interesting that every single person I talked to who worked with you confirmed. You have a reputation for having thin-skin. Face-to-face adversity appears to be difficult for you. There was even someone who organized an event that you spoke at, recalling your extremely unusual request to see the RSVP list so you could seemingly vet them. Speakers look at those list all the time out of curiosity, but this was different. My guess is that you probably know what I am referring to. My point is that I think I understand you a little better now. You seem to want to control your environment. Perhaps you should let go of that and start holding town halls more often. You might take a few lumps, but you will also get plenty of praise from your supporters—especially if you take more steps to look Mainers in the eye and connect on a human level.

Finally, I need to ask this because I would be remiss if I didn't: Is the support you have shown for President Trump over the past four years genuine?

I know the Overton Window moves left and right, but Trump has found a way to make it move down. In other words, statements and actions so juvenile, rude and completely baseless used to mean the end of a political career. For President Trump, it is known as "every day of the week." I challenge you to find a 30 second clip from any of Trump's rallies where he doesn't insult someone or make it about himself. The man has successfully divided the United States of America to a level I never thought possible, and that is not an easy thing to do.

I find it hard to believe that you, a public servant for 23 years, doesn't cringe on an hourly basis about the fact that you have to report to a misogynistic narcissist with no political experience, who doesn't pay his taxes and has the bed side manner of Triumph The Insult Comic Dog. You will soon be free of him, and you will have a chance to work with the Biden administration, a president who possess dignity and values. You might not always agree, but at least it will be an adult conversation.


The gridlock in Washington is the most dysfunctional it has ever been by far. You know this, Susan. You have a front row seat. You could be the spark that leads to a different way of thinking. This country was so desperate for anything other than business-as-usual in our federal government that they elected Donald Trump, and continued to convince themselves that his behavior wasn't that of a spoiled five-year old who needs attention. All the time.

People need to remember that you were a maverick in years past. I believe you can get back the ear of the Democratic constituents you lost and keep the Republican ones so loyal to you. Someone has to break this seemingly endless and profoundly dangerous cycle of behavior on Capitol Hill. There needs to be a first, and I really think you could be her. Forget about who is Democrat and who is Republican, and lead by example. Someone needs to step up and it may as well be you. We as Americans know the difference between disingenuous actions and those that are pure of heart. If you lead the way, people like my mother, my brother and I will all be right behind you.

By the way, I also think I understand why you didn't (or couldn't) answer my brother's questions when he approached you in that airport last year. Maybe it is because you couldn't in good conscience give an answer when he asked questions like, "What do I say to my daughter when president uses language on a daily basis that would get her kicked out of school?" Maybe it is because you couldn't justify it either, but you had to be loyal to your party. Those days are behind you and you made it through. You have the next six years to get your "maverick" on and make a difference. And I can't wait to see what you do.

This country has too much potential to keep going down a path where the best case scenario is everyone being consistently angry and growing even more divided. The worst case scenario is all-out civil war, which doesn't seem far fetched enough at this point. President Trump's version of unity is telling militia groups like The Proud Boys to "stand by," and it is scary to think about what that might lead to. Those guys seem like the kind of fellas that could cause a great deal of chaos. I do believe we all want the same thing: freedom, unity and the pursuit of happiness. We have dug ourselves quite a hole, but Susan, if you can be the catalyst that pulls us out of it, you will be one of the most important trailblazers in political history.

Make America great again, because the last guy who preached those words kind of went the other way on that one. If you can pull this off, even if you put your credit card out first, I will be the first one to buy you dinner.

Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


4. 30-year-old singer with terminal cancer amazed and inspired with her performance on America's Got Talent.

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Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


4. 30-year-old singer with terminal cancer amazed and inspired with her performance on America's Got Talent.

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True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."