Do we expect too much from celebrities diagnosed with cancer?

Do We Expect Too Much From Celebrities Diagnosed With Cancer?

After Olivia Newton-John shared about her metastatic breast cancer diagnosis, there was hope expressed by some in Cancer Land she might possibly become a voice for others with metastatic disease. There was hope she’d morph into an advocate extraordinaire and tell the truth about the insidious, deadly nature of metastatic breast cancer. This could potentially lead to the unraveling of the glossed-over, overly-pinktified version of breast cancer. This could in turn, potentially lead to more outrage, more advocacy, more dollars earmarked for mets research and so on. You could almost sense some holding their breath in anticipation.

That hope didn’t last long.

Olivia Newton-John seemed to quickly pivot to the traditional narrative we typically get from celebrities when they are diagnosed with cancer, in her case, even a metastatic diagnosis. You know the one, the let’s put a positive spin on it, keep smiling and get on with beating this.

This whole deal got me thinking…do we expect too much from celebrities when they are diagnosed with cancer?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Sure, celebrities are just people, too, but they also generally have huge platforms. Therefore, some of us keep hoping one of them will step up and speak truth without sugarcoating it. Generally, we end up feeling disappointed, or at least I do.

But again, is it fair to expect something different, something more from celebrities?

I’m not entirely sure, but fair or not, perhaps it is.

Do you remember Joan Lunden’s revelation and how she chose to handle her diagnosis?

Me too. You can read my take on that bald cover shoot she did for People magazine if you care to. I have Joan’s memoir, but so far, I can’t bring myself to read it. I didn’t get past the acknowledgment page, or rather pages. My memoir has one brief paragraph for that. I mention this to illustrate the huge, potentially influential platforms such celebrities have to truly educate and inspire.

Some would say Joan has inspired and educated countless people about breast cancer. Others might say, not so much.

What would you say?

An example of a celebrity who ruffled some feathers, especially in the BRCA community, was Melissa Etheridge. She implied she had turned on her BRCA gene mutation with an unhealthy life style. She also implied after making significant life style changes and getting her body back in balance was when her cancer disappeared. Don’t think it’s quite that simple. There isn’t an on and off switch. In addition, she did not encourage others to be tested for the BRCA gene mutation, but was tested herself. WTF?

I wrote about Melissa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow (there’s another big name with loads of influence) in this post, Who Should Take the ‘Heat’ for the Melissa Etheridge/Sheryl Crow AARP Article?

Btw, Melissa Etheridge blocked me on Twitter after I wrote that post. She’s the only one who’s ever blocked me, as far as I know anyway.

Interesting, don’t you think?

There are many more celebrities who share about their cancer diagnoses. Generally, they share minimally about the hardship parts of cancer and quickly go on to share about life lessons gleaned. This of course, leads to offers of advice and inspiration for the rest of us. And this is fine. Until it’s not.

Everyone has the right to “do cancer” any way they choose. This is true if you are famous and it’s true for you and me as well. I have absolutely no problem with anyone doing cancer any which way they like.

However, the trouble with celebrity sugarcoating is that they DO have huge audiences and platforms and sometimes their “inspiration” has the opposite effect of its intent. It sometimes makes us non-celebrity types feel worse because many of us keep struggling (long after diagnosis, I might add) to get through each day in one piece. And of course, there is very real danger when celebrities speak inaccurately or incompletely about cancer facts and reality. Messaging matters when your audience is a worldwide one, and even when it’s not.

Has there ever been a celebrity who bared it all, who didn’t sugarcoat?

If there were to be such a celebrity ready to step forward to share about the ugly side of her/his cancer experience, I think that’d be far more helpful and perhaps far more inspirational to far more people than sugarcoating things. Because as I’ve said time and time again, truth inspires us all, even if that truth is hard, painful and downright ugly to  tell and/or hear.

But maybe it’s just me that feels this way.

What do you think?

Additional note:  One “cancer celebrity” I do admire is Kathy Bates. She’s dealt with ovarian cancer and breast cancer. I don’t know or remember how much she shared about her cancer experiences, but what I admire her for today is her advocacy work on behalf of those dealing with lymphedema.

Is it fair to expect more from celebrities when it comes to sharing about their cancer experiences?

Can you think of a celebrity who’s bared it all (not literally) after her/his cancer diagnosis?

Image by Eva Rinaldi via Flickr/creative commons

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Do we expect too much from celebrities diagnosed with cancer?

20 thoughts on “Do We Expect Too Much From Celebrities Diagnosed With Cancer?

  1. You are right. Celebrities have a huge opportunity to educate. The problem is people love happy, perfect celebrities. If they share the negative aspects of their disease, they might lose a huge chunk of their followers. I think their speaking about the reality of these diseases would cause more people to donate to research. If not, we all lose. A definite missed opportunity. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Lisa, If celebrities shared the negative aspects as well, they’d likely be more helpful and inspiring. That’s what I can never figure out, this hesitancy to speak fully about the hard stuff. And you’re right about the donation to research angle. I certainly wish ONJ all my best, as we all do, but I agree, it’s a missed opportunity. Of course, she still has tremendous advocacy opportunity, is she so chooses. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Yes, I think people do expect too much from Celebrities when they are going through the most awfull time of their cancer returning. A cancer diagnosis is so traumatic , let alone the treatment. When the cancer has metastasized, you may have to face treatments again and again. Unless the person is extremely brave, and has found Their own inner peace , coming to terms with their own mortality. Leave them alone.
    If they chose to speak out , no sugar coating please.

    1. Kay, The thing is ONJ did choose to speak out. There is always the option to keep things private. Once they (celebrities) open that door, I don’t think it is expecting too much of them to share the good, bad and the ugly parts of the experience. Messaging matters and it needs to be complete and accurate when one’s platform is hugely influential. Of course, I’m not saying celebrities must tell us every detail, but I am suggesting they keep it real, skip the sugarcoating and when sharing cancer info, stick to the facts. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.

  3. I fully agree that people in the public eye often sugar coat a cancer diagnosis, and often other diagnoses as well. We all lose a chance to help build reality about illnesses into our public consciousness. Consider, however, that anything less than their best face will lose them business, parts (for actors), and probably peer support. That is reality. In the past, several famous actresses who had mastectomies hid their situation because no one would have hired them, and production insurance would not have covered them. We’re past that, thankfully, but haven’t come all the way yet.

    1. Rebecca, I actually think the public would not become less supportive if a celebrity ditched the sugarcoating and showed more vulnerability. It would only make the celebrity more real and easier to relate to. You might be right about the business side of things, though. I’m not sure. You’re right, it seems we still have a ways to go. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Just as most (female) celebrities won’t own up to plastic surgery, most celebrities won’t own up to admitting they are seriously ill – probably due to public relations people trying to minimize it. And of course they get hounded by the paparazzi when they are ill. I used to work at Cedars-Sinai medical center, and they had to install private elevators and parking lots so that ill celebrities could bring themselves and their families in without dealing with that. Politicians are somewhat different; they don’t have to pretend to look decades younger, so maybe Senator McCain will go back to work during chemo or whatever treatment. But I notice people are already expecting him to ‘beat’ this unbeatable cancer because of his heroic history. That is a big burden to put on someone.

    One celebrity I did admire was Edie Falco; I read about her experience with breast cancer while I was going through treatment. She was very open about how scared she was when diagnosed and how her appearance during chemo scared her to the point she wore knit caps at home. She kept her diagnosis quiet with the exception of telling the producers of The Sopranos so that they could schedule her work around her chemo sessions. The makeup and hair people made up wigs and fake nails so the cast was none the wiser. She said she did that so she wouldn’t get the ‘sad eyes’ face from people when they found out. It wasn’t until the next year when she showed up with a very short hair style that she let them all know. I can understand that – I only told my manager and a few others at work because I didn’t want to get the ‘sad eyes’ and was also aware that the cancer would tag me as being old and sick and could be a career killer. And in fact I was later turned down for a promotion the next year and I was actually told by the director that he was concerned about my health. The irony is that I took off a total of 2 weeks for surgery and a few days here and there for chemo but the next year my manager took off 5 months of family leave when she had her 2nd child. Life is definitely not fair.

    1. Kathy, You raise a good point about celebrities and that whole privacy issue. I noticed as well that the battle talk has kicked into high gear regarding Senator McCain. It’s so worn out and you’re right, it is a big burden to put on someone. Thank you for sharing about Edie Falco. I knew she had breast cancer, but I didn’t know the stuff you shared. And yes, the irony of your situation. Life isn’t fair. That’s something we can all agree on. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Hi, Nancy. When it comes to remarks about health matters that could be construed as “advice”, I do think celebrities should be held to a higher standard. Having that public podium is a privilege. Although she hasn’t been diagnosed with cancer, I would say that Angelina Jolie is an example of a celebrity who has made the effort to provide accurate information about her health situation and experience that may be relevant and helpful for others.

    1. Lisa, I believe those highly visible, public podiums carry with them responsibility. I admire Angelina Jolie, too, for her willingness to share about her experience and to at least try to provide accurate info. Thank you for sharing.

  6. I agree with you 100%. I also do respect Kathy Bates tremendously for the work she has done in the area of Lymphedema: for raising the visibility of lymphedema and lymphatic diseases and advocating tirelessly on behalf of the patient community. As spokesperson for LE&RN (Lymphatic Education & Research Network), she tirelessly works to promote education, research, funding and awareness for those of us with Lymphedema.

  7. Fascinating topic–thank you for writing this. I think I might have had this conversation with someone some time ago (Rebecca of Small C, I think). The answer is both yes and no. I’d meant to write a blog post on this topic, but I no longer kid myself–it won’t happen. So am sorry if I ramble a bit here….
    For me, it is a mixture of expectation and hope. I always hope a celeb will display a sensibility closer to my own, but that will never happen. Many praised Shannen Doherty for showing the “real, not pink and perky” side–personally I found her still a little too “I’m gonna fight this/kick cancer’s ass”. It should be noted that many here in CancerLand reject the pinky-perky but still embrace warrior identities.

    Of course I reject both, all of that, all of cancer culture in general, duh, I’m a curmudgeon!

    I’ve been disappointed by artists with cancer (NOT celebs, because most people won’t know who I mention here). I threw up a little bit when the singer from the Divinyls wanted her song “I touch Myself” to be used for BSE promotion, further sexualizing this disease, that already has enough of that. I groaned when Green Day were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the bassist mentioned how his wife was fighter who had just “beat” breast cancer. So much for punk attitudes–everything becomes cliche in the end. And while iconoclast Kim Gordon didn’t mention much about her DCIS, she called it “the best you could have”. I appreciated her leaving the topic alone, before she said anything real stupid. Granted she was dealing with a high-profile (in the music world) divorce to a philanderer so I guess her “battle” with cancer paled in comparison . So, no, I haven’t found ANY celeb’s view on which I can agree.

    But on the other hand…..

    It doesn’t stop me from looking at other celebs with other disease. As a caregiver for someone with Chronic Lyme, I long for high profile examples in celebrity, because obviously, Lyme doesn’t have the same glut of support/examples/press that breast cancer does. I mean, in my 20s I liked Bikini Kill and the whole Riot Grrrl thing. But when “The Punk Singer” documentary came out, about Kathleen Hanna, I devoured it mainly to understand what treatment protocol she was using–looking for any glimmer of info on how to “do” Lyme. I realized the hypocrisy in myself of turning up my nose at cancer celebs while pinning too much hope on Hanna. And I realized I’d reduced an accomplished artist/poet/feminist leader to her disease. But when a disease is not well known, people in that disease world can get desperate for info.

    But here’s the thing. This topic kind encompassed celebs but is bigger than celebs. People like Lunden, ONJ, and Etheridge just elicit disgust from me. As celebs they give interviews, but they don’t “have to”, they could just not talk about it. Not to be mean, but it isn’t like ONJ is burning up the record charts right now–so part of me is like, why is she giving the interview, she isn’t promoting new artistic work. Etheridge and her “I believe xyz about my cancer” is just absolutely ridiculous. She is not a medical/science professional, not sure why we should listen to her “beliefs”. And that is where we the audience need to take responsibility. Etheridge is not a doctor or YOUR doctor, so don’t listen to her–it’s that simple.
    Lunden is a different beast again, in that she is doing what some of us bloggers are doing, but on a larger scale. And there, it gets tricky. Lunden IS portraying her way as a successful way to “Do” cancer. I don’t think you (Nancy) or I am doing that. Personally, I tell people, good grief don’t do anything I do–I’m an idiot ranting on the internet, nothing more!
    The bottom line tho is this. Audiences will always be drawn to the feel good story. Whether it is ONJ or the community woman on your local news who says THE SAME DAMN THING, that is the story the media will highlight. We can groan about celebs all day long, but if ONJ wasn’t reciting the positive script so many others before her have recited, she wouldn’t have been on the cover of that trash magazine.

    Sorry for the ramble and harshness, Love, Wendi

    1. CC, You know I love your rambles. I still think audiences are also drawn to authenticity, so if a celeb were to be truly frank about the ugly parts of her cancer diagnosis, I think most people would very much appreciate that and become even more supportive. When someone shows vulnerability it’s a powerful thing. Thanks for sharing. Ramble any time.

  8. Wow, Melissa Etheridge blocked you on Twitter? You totally rock, girlfriend!!

    Anyway, the problems I have with celebrity status is that celebrityhood isn’t real. I mean, we see images of celebrities all picture-perfect, and what comes out of their mouths is prettified. They do have huge platforms, and this is a great opportunity to educate others and offer support for the disease. But I am on the fence about this one. They are human and perhaps it’s fine for them to handle their diseases the way they do, even if they are in denial. After all, so many “regular folk” start out in denial. On the other hand, celebrities must be careful what they say. The public at large is exceedingly gullible.

    I respect Bates also. Two other celebrities I’ve admired have been Christopher Reeve and Michael J. Fox, who’ve inspired us with the truth.

    1. Beth, Yes, celebs are only human, but once they open that door and share, I expect them to share accurate info. As far as the personal stuff, they get to do cancer the way they want, too. But this doesn’t give them a free pass to share inaccurate or incomplete cancer info. I love Kathy Bates. The other two celebs you mentioned are admirable as well. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Hi Nancy – My issue with celebrities isn’t that they are not sharing their truths. It is the fact that, more often than not, they are misinforming the public. Of course every patient has the right to keep things “private” (as much as people around them would allow – we all know bad news travel fast). But if that is the intention, to keep it “private”, then these celebrities shouldn’t say anything at all. Better to be silent than to spread inaccurate information. After all, they have a higher reach than the average patient, and that’s the scary and dangerous part!

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