Celebrities with cancer

Posted by Noelle LoConte, MD  June 30, 2009 02:45 PM

As I am sure you all know, Farrah Fawcett died last week from anal cancer. After initially denying or at least avoiding whether she had cancer, Fawcett was later open about her diagnosis, and I for one thank her for it. Her documentary was actually not too bad, and I thought it captured a realistic short period of time in living with cancer. One of the cover stories this week in Slate relates to the difficult balance in being a celebrity and having cancer. (One small beef with the article: It states that Farrah having chemotherapy and radiation and surgery for her anal cancer proved she had advanced disease. I totally disagree. I cannot find that she initially had surgery, and chemotherapy and radiation together would be standard treatment for anal cancer.)

However, I do agree with the author, Dr. Barron Lerner, that frequently, news from celebrities' publicists about their cancer usually has an unrealistically positive spin on things, if they acknowledge the cancer at all (recall Steve Jobs or Paul Newman). The Slate article argues that this may be giving patients false hope, and while I am sure that might be true, I'm not certain that is the intent of the celebrity. I think at the end of the day they desperately believe they are in that great health state and are headed towards a cure or at least a long remission. I believe most cancer patients believe this, and this explains why the majority of patients in phase-1 studies personally believe they will benefit from the experimental therapy despite also realizing the very low (<5% for all studies pooled) odds of success overall.

So, I am not sure it is fair to hold celebrities with cancer to a different standard than we hold all non-celebrities with cancer, and I am also not sure that it is right to make them de facto spokespeople for whatever kind of cancer they have. They should be allowed their own journeys, even if their personal beliefs are in contrast to the medical probabilities.

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