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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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Thursday 5th of November 2020

I agree. After my first breast cancer diagnosis, I felt that everyone expected me to be positive because that's what everyone seems to be. Everywhere you look, someone with breast cancer is saying how they're going to beat this disease while waving pink pom poems, or someone is saying how strong or brave you are (I never understood how going to my MD appointments made me either; I just wanted to live). Now that it has spread, I feel sad, angry, and terrified. I've yet to see my emotions reflected in anybody else, which of course, as I believe someone above stated, propagates the myth that that's what we all feel or that's what we should feel. I think a lot of that comes from other people being uncomfortable around people who are I'll or upset. It's very difficult to know what to say to someone who's facing a difficult situation where there's nothing you can say to cheer them up or make them feel better. It's easier if they're just happy so you don't have to try, or you could just call them brave or strong because that's what we're told to tell people with cancer, whatever the hell that means. Thanks for sharing this article. Hope it wasn't too much of a downer, but here's to keeping it real.


Friday 6th of November 2020

Val, Your comment isn't a downer at all. You've expressed your feelings perfectly. So often, people say things that are actually more about them than the person they are trying to comfort, if that makes sense. Like I always say, be real. Be you. It's enough. Thanks so much for sharing.

Ilene Kaminsky

Friday 14th of February 2020

You should Be proud that Melissa Etheridge block to you. I find that to be very indicative of what you’re saying here and if celebrities won’t use their reach and can’t expose the truth - they don’t give a voice to those who are primarily voiceless when they are stricken with the same illnesses that we are then the responsibility they have in the public eye takes on a very different meaning. There are no positive role models left for kids to look up to why should it be any different with metastatic cancer, I suppose.


Tuesday 18th of February 2020

Ilene, Yeah, I actually do not care that she blocked me. Just found it interesting. I think there still are role models, but sometimes it does seem like they're few and far between. Thank you for taking time to comment.


Wednesday 12th of September 2018

What do you think about Farrah Fawcett? I feel she was very open and honest about the ugly side of what cancer did to her.



Wednesday 12th of September 2018

Kathy, I don't really know much about how Farrah Fawcett handled her diagnosis, so I can't really comment on that. It's sad she suffered so. It's sad when anyone does. Thanks for the question.


Saturday 29th of July 2017

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!


Saturday 29th of July 2017

Rebecca, Ditto to everything you said. :)

Beth Gainer

Thursday 27th of July 2017

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.


Friday 28th of July 2017

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.

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