Is a celebrity’s battle with cancer secret or private?

Following the sad loss of David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Terry Wogan in January, Ali Stunt, chief executive of Pancreatic Cancer Action and a rare survivor of pancreatic cancer, shares her thoughts on the media headlines of their ‘secret battles’ with the disease.  

We’ve sadly seen a few of our treasured celebrities and legendary greats such as David Bowie, Lemmy, Alan Rickman and lately Sir Terry Wogan pass away from cancer over the past few weeks. Alan Rickman, we now know, suffered pancreatic cancer. Not a nice start to the New Year, especially for their families and friends.

And while the media and press has been full of tributes, the Untitled design (1)headlines have screamed “silent battle with cancer”, “he kept if from all but his closest friends” and “nobody knew”.

Celebrities have chosen a career that has taken them into the limelight, the media spotlight and in some cases, such as Terry Wogan, they are such a household name we think we know them.

However, celebrities, like you and I are human too and a diagnosis of cancer is one that can be devastating for the patient and those around them. It’s a diagnosis that can be difficult to deal with when you do not have the world’s media trained on you let alone when they do. In the age of Twitter, one’s every move can be instantly shared with the globe – especially if you are famous. And, sometimes, when someone is in the public eye, the press and other media think they have a right to know and to tell the world.

As someone who is keen to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer, you may have thought that I would have wanted these celebrities with the disease to “come out’ and be public about what they are suffering when they are still alive. After all, the media attention this would bring to the disease can be enormous and we do need so much more attention focussed on pancreatic cancer. But, in my opinion, this isn’t the way to do it.

I remember poor Patrick Swayse (and to a certain extent), Steve Jobs, both of whom eventually went public with their pancreatic cancer diagnoses. I remember how brave Patrick was in particular about talking about his disease and about how he was going to beat it. His positivity certainly helped him survive a lot longer than the average, however the media were not always on his side. Keen to get the latest shot of a thin, gaunt man clearly in the last stages of his illness, they stalked him as he went to his chemotherapy sessions or to the doctor’s clinic.

This kind of salacious reporting is not in the public interest. It doesn’t help further the cause and in my opinion, there is a huge difference between what is ‘public interest’ and the fact that the ‘public is interested’.

Celebrities are keeping their illness private, not secret and we should respect them for that. There are so many reasons why a celebrity will want to keep their cancer diagnosis private; they may be worried about other people’s reactions, negative speculation in the media, not wanting people to feel sorry for them and, importantly, to protect those around them.

To further the cause for pancreatic cancer, we need to have celebrities who have, like me, survived the disease to become advocates for change, to show the world that with an early diagnosis it is possible to survive and that with a focus on improving early diagnosis we will change the numbers for pancreatic cancer.

My condolences and thoughts are with all families recently bereaved by cancer, whether they are a celebrity or not.