Belfast Telegraph

We talk openly about cancer now but some people will always prefer not to do so

By Mary Kenny

So, two recent high-profile deaths; the much-lamented David Bowie, and the widely mourned Alan Rickman. Both were 69 and both, it was announced, died from cancer: Bowie from liver cancer, Rickman from cancer of the pancreas.

Changes in public attitudes to cancer have been striking over the course of my working life. It was once the great unmentionable.

When I was a young reporter in Fleet Street in the late Sixties, we were forbidden to print the word. It was believed to be indelicate, that it would upset readers, and some even thought, irrationally, that it was unlucky. Cancer wasn't stigmatised, as TB had been - since tuberculosis was so highly infectious - but it was feared, as 'the Big C'. So, cause of death was often veiled.

When King George VI, father of the present Queen, died from lung cancer in 1952, it was not openly referred to at the time. When his brother, the abdicated Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor, died in 1972, also from cancer, neither was that made known.

We are much more open about discussing cancer today, partly because we are less private in general, and partly because so much progress has been made in the treatment of the illness that it is no longer an automatic death sentence.

People make very good recoveries from cancer and can live in remission for many years. (One of my oldest friends had an aggressive form of breast cancer in 1993. She is today hale and hearty and enjoying life to the full.) Great strides have been made in the treatment of the malady.

There is more campaigning to detect cancer and get an early diagnosis and treatment. And the boffins who are doing medical research realise that public awareness is vital to raise funds - the Daffodil Appeal is a vital contribution to cancer research.

Cancer 'diaries' help people understand the illness much better. One in four of us will get cancer, so it is right that we should be informed about it and identify with cancer patients.

And yet, for all the openness about cancer now, some people prefer to keep their diagnosis private. David Bowie felt that he just wanted to focus fully on his creative work, without public fuss over his illness; and he made the opening of Enda Walsh's 'Lazarus' on December 7, just a month before he died.

By the same token, the author Jackie Collins chose to not to reveal until just before she died that she had been suffering from breast cancer for six years. She told her sister Joan that she had lost weight because of a new Californian diet.

Jackie said she really wanted to concentrate on her writing and discussing her cancer openly would have been a distraction. She got six books written over the course of her treatment.

By contrast, Clive James has been very public about his leukaemia (as well as having COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Indeed, since announcing that the Grim Reaper was waiting for him in the wings, he has written and published some of the best poetry ever penned about saying goodbye to this world. And, month after month, he produces more verse of beautiful reflections on life's passing.

The BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, has also been completely open about his lung cancer - not only announcing it, but disclosing that it turned out to be worse than originally diagnosed.

But he got the treatment and is now back on the airwaves.

For some people in the performing arts, there can be an anxiety about insurance; actors are insured against illness and emergency and a cancer diagnosis can affect the premiums - and the risks producers are willing to take.

The screen writer and director Nora Ephron feared that she would lose work in Hollywood if she spoke about her myeloid leukaemia. Dame Maggie Smith, however, was quite candid about taking a break from her career to have treatment for breast cancer; she bounced back and into Downton Abbey, a role in which she had more global success than ever before.

It is clearly up to each individual whether they want to make their illness public or keep it private. But cancer patients do have a choice now as to whether they wish to make their illness known, or keep the matter private.

Being open about an illness is admirable, but candour shouldn't mean that all personal privacy is abolished. Yet at least, people are not forced to conceal it from a sense of misplaced prudishness or fear of eliciting fear in others.

Belfast Telegraph


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