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In Going Public, Valerie Harper Is in Good Company

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.

Valerie Harper

Valerie Harper

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:

 

Photo: Maggiejumps via Wikipedia