Actress Valerie Harper’s March 11 appearance on the Today show to discuss her diagnosis of terminal brain cancer made her the latest celebrity to go on television to talk about a personal life-and-death health challenge.
There was a time the famous tended to keep quiet about serious illnesses behind a protective cocoon of press agents, limousines with tinted windows and mansion walls. Often fans found out about their conditions through terse press releases asking for privacy, or though hints picked up by the supermarket tabloids.
After actor Gary Cooper was stricken with cancer in 1960, for example, the first public inkling didn’t come until the following spring, when Jimmy Stewart accepted an honorary award for him at the Oscars and nearly broke into tears on national TV. Even after Cooper’s family was inundated by inquiries, a spokesman only was willing to say that “he is gravely ill.” Cooper died about a month later.
John Wayne bravely shattered precedent. After keeping his lung cancer secret because, he later explained, his PR people “all thought it would destroy my image,” Wayne revealed after surgery in 1964 that early detection had saved his life and urged people to get annual medical checkups.
Since then, it’s become common for celebrities to go public about their illnesses. A few examples:
- Peter Jennings. The ABC News anchorman, just after issuing a written statement revealing that he had lung cancer, told viewers at the end of this April 2005 newscast of the diagnosis. In a husky voice, Jennings bravely poked fun at his own vanity, saying that he wondered if other patients had been as quick to ask, “Okay doc, when does the hair go?” He died four months later.
- Michael Douglas. Douglas, the star of movies such as Wall Street and Fatal Instinct, appeared on David Letterman’s late-night television show on CBS in September 2010, shortly after completing his first round of radiation and chemotherapy for throat cancer. “I’ve got cancer. Found out about it three weeks ago,” he said, and then, with astonishing aplomb, playfully tweaked his host: “I said, ‘Gee, that’s when I found out I was going to be on your show.’ ” Douglas went on to say that his prognosis was good. He’s since returned to acting, and stars in an upcoming biopic about Liberace.
- Patrick Swayze. In early 2008, shortly after signing to do the cable TV detective series The Beast, Swayze was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer — usually a death sentence that claims victims in a matter of months. Nevertheless, he not only kept his commitment to make the series, but between treatments turned in some of his finest work as an actor. Here’s a 2009 interview with Barbara Walters in which he candidly discussed his struggle to survive for as long as possible, despite the realization that “the cancer is not going away.” He died nine months later.
- Andrea Mitchell. In 2011, NBC’s chief foreign affairs correspondent revealed on the air that she had been diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. “Lucky for me, I am one of the fortunate ones,” she said, explaining that her treatment had been successful and that her prognosis was “terrific.”
- Glen Campbell. The country star and former host of a hit TV show first revealed in a 2011 People magazine interview that he had Alzheimer’s disease. But Campbell soon took to the airwaves to discuss his diagnosis and his family’s struggle with his plight. Here’s a September 2011 interview that he gave to ABC’s Good Morning America.
- Michael J. Fox. In 1998, Fox — then the star of the comedy series Spin City — revealed in an interview with People magazine that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and then was interviewed by Barbara Walters on national TV. Here’s a January 2013 conversation with David Letterman.
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