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News / Opinion / Columns

Harrop: No shame in cancer diagnosis

By Froma Harrop
Published: March 30, 2024, 6:03am

News that Catherine, Princess of Wales, has been diagnosed with cancer set off a pointless argument. One side complained that the royal family had not been forthcoming with the truth behind her long hospitalization. The other held that Catherine has a right to privacy and is under no obligation to make her medical condition public.

Both points share the unfortunate assumption that there is shame and embarrassment in disclosing a cancer diagnosis when there shouldn’t be any. Why would that be? Had Catherine suffered a punctured lung from falling off a horse, one doubts the reason for her being in the hospital would have been kept secret.

Before going on, some thoughts on this business of the royals. Why educated citizens of the world continued to slobber over average people handed castles, lands and adoration by virtue of their birth escapes me. But if the British royals are going to play the game, the least they could do is pose as models of rectitude; three of Elizabeth’s children failed to keep their first marriages intact, including the one currently going around as king.

What is especially royal about a former sitcom actress, Meghan Markle, or, for that matter, the mediocrity she’s married to? He gets to be called a prince because his father had been named king — and billions of people around the globe go along with it. I don’t need to elaborate on the absurdity. Thomas Paine did the work.

What does this have to do with the matter of whether the public needs to know Catherine’s condition? It is that people who thrust their specialness before the rest of humanity still don’t get to pick and choose what humanity may hear.

In any case, wouldn’t Catherine be doing a service by showing that anyone can get cancer? Father-in-law Charles did.

Now, this is nothing against Catherine herself. Of all the royals, she is the most admirable. And she doesn’t engage in the vulgar dishing of family resentments.

Every cancer is different. Most can be treated. In many cases, good care can extend life to the point where the patient dies of something else. And several cancers can be virtually cured.

It’s true that some cancers are linked to poor habits: smoking to lung cancer, alcoholism to liver cancer. But people who do neither are also diagnosed with them. “Cancer is something that can happen to anyone,” Kristie Redfield, a social worker at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said. “It’s an illness, not a failing.”

Shame and guilt associated with cancer comes from deep within the culture. “People might hold certain beliefs about how the world works or how much control they have over their own lives,” Redfield notes. “They might think their cancer is a punishment or payback for something they did.”

As for online commentary, no one is in charge. There’s no stopping the stupidity, insults and lies. But the royals have a huge media platform on which to shape their stories. And they use it all the time. Not coming out with some explanation for months after hospitalization can’t be explained, except as a means of hiding information deemed unseemly. Catherine had nothing to be embarrassed about.

The word “cancer” remains scary. Wouldn’t Catherine be doing us all a service by using her royal microphone to calm some of the fears surrounding the diagnosis — and sweep away the shame too often wrongly attached to it?

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