Two deaths of people in the public eye. Neither passing expected by anyone but close family. A shock to us, the public, who had no inkling that diagnoses of such magnitude — cancer, bipolar disorder — could be kept secret in our hyperconnected age.
Flamboyant nightclub owner Peter Stringfellow was 77. Handbag and fashion designer Kate Spade was 55. Both were ill; both chose not to publicise it.
Last week, Spade took her own life, unable to cope with the twin demons of anxiety and depression. The legions of women who bought and treasured her bags saw nothing but a dazzling success story, but her sister had expected the worst might happen.
Despite best efforts from the likes of Lady Gaga and Cara Delevingne, Dwyane ‘The Rock’ Johnson and our own Prince Harry to remove the stigma of mental illness, Spade apparently preferred not to talk about her demons, lest it “damage” her brand. That was her choice; however, she may have underestimated the kindness of strangers.
For his part, Stringfellow had previously kept a 2008 lung cancer diagnosis secret and quietly underwent treatment. Contrary to his showman reputation, this was something he was not prepared to display.
Now that the disease has claimed him, we don’t know if it was recurrence of the same lung cancer and, possibly, we never will. But is there any real need for us to be told?
Well, perhaps some good might come of it. After all, cancer charities report a spike in inquiries when celebrities open up about their illnesses — such as when Kylie Minogue revealed her breast cancer in 2005.
BBC newsreader George Alagiah received huge support when he disclosed in 2014 he had bowel cancer and underwent treatment. Sadly, the cancer has since returned, and he has been given just a 10 per cent likelihood of surviving the next five years. What to do, apart from lament and wring our hands? For his part, Alagiah hasn’t sat by: he is campaigning with whatever precious time he has left.
And there is a clear public health benefit to his efforts. The 62-year-old’s bowel cancer was at stage four when it was first found. Had it been discovered at stage one, there is an almost 100 per cent survival rate for at least five years.
With one simple tweet, Alagiah may already have convinced others to go for a check-up. “My cancer was caught late, very late,” he wrote. “Earlier screening is the key. Simply no reason why others should have to go through all the treatment that I’ve had.”
Later, Alagiah told an interviewer that if he had lived in Scotland — where screening is automatically offered from the age of 50, rather than from 60 upwards in England — he would have been screened at least three times, possibly four, by 58, the age at which his cancer was detected. Then, it would just have been “a little polyp — snip, snip”.
Alagiah is now supporting a campaign by Bowel Cancer UK and Beating Bowel Cancer for screening to be made available earlier in England. If he succeeds, he will doubtless have saved lives.
Kylie, who reached her 10-year all-clear milestone in 2016, has campaigned for breast cancer charities, and asked fans to donate to Breast Cancer Care by way of celebrating her 50th birthday last month.
Baroness Tessa Jowell, 70, was upfront, optimistic and fiercely energetic in her efforts to push for improved brain cancer treatments after she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of the disease. A few weeks before her death last month, she became the first person to donate her medical information to a new global Universal Cancer Databank, in the hope of paving the way for research.
There are a great many more who have shared their travails, from Dame Maggie Smith who was treated for breast cancer 10 years ago, to TV presenter Bill Turnbull, 62, who has advanced prostate cancer that has spread to the bone. When he said, “I am cross with myself” for not visiting a GP in four years, a great many men sat up and took notice.
But just because household names can reach out in this way doesn’t mean they must. Much as we like to believe we know performers and politicians, captains of industry or reality show celebrities — we don’t.
Social media has blurred the lines between them and us, given us access to their lives unthinkable even a decade ago. But sharing their holiday selfies doesn’t confer on us any rights. Hard as it might be for some — particularly young people — we are fans, not friends.
The term “role model” is bandied about a lot, and sometimes brandished as a weapon, when we find out our idols have feet of clay because they don’t live up to our high expectations. And, yes, to some degree being in the spotlight does carry with it a certain responsibility.
But choosing not to talk about mental health or cancer or any other highly personal illness is the most individual of decisions, and one worthy of the utmost respect.
The deaths that might have appeared appallingly sudden to us, such as the loss in 2016 of David Bowie from liver cancer and Alan Rickman from pancreatic cancer, both aged 69, did not come entirely out of the blue for them. Similarly, Victoria Wood died after “a short but brave” battle with cancer aged 62, in the same year. Her adoring audiences knew nothing until her death was announced, and were left reeling.
But at the end of the day, at the end of life, she wanted her children by her bedside, not to listen to the ping of endless messages from the well-meaning masses who saw her in concert halls or on television.
To feel short-changed or disappointed by their need for privacy is, at best, myopic and, at worst, monstrous.
Every two minutes, someone is diagnosed with cancer in Britain. Every four minutes, someone dies of it, a figure that adds up to 28 per cent of the population.
Nobody knows for sure how they would deal with a terrifying diagnosis until it happens. The last thing anyone needs is to be judged by their personal response, however famous their persona.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
Judith Woods is a columnist and writes features for The Daily Telegraph.