The Irish Medical Times - Are we too embarrassed to talk about illness


There has been a lot of internet hype recently surrounding the royal family potentially hiding details of an abdominal surgery (and possibly even hiding the patient). But where there is a gap in information the idle will happily fill it with wild speculation, including secret Brazilian butt lifts and death. 

The internet is banging its virtual fist and demanding to know more (Is it cancer? Eating disorder? Hysterectomy? Coma?). I’m not suggesting that these temper tantrums should be indulged, however, there can be times when a drop of clarity can satisfy the members of the public who are worried about the princess. 

I myself have had abdominal surgery (a partial pancreatectomy and splenectomy). If during my recuperation, rumour mills cranked into action that I’d had my buttock’s augmented, I like to think I would have been swift to correct that. Perhaps, unashamedly informing the huddled crowd that my surgery involved organ removals due to an inconvenient tumour. However, my ‘rumour mills’ would have been 3 people around a water cooler and not 280 million results on the internet. Many people believe you shouldn’t feed the frenzy, even with a correction.

I appreciate that some people prefer not to share medical information in case it upsets their children, this is a noble thought. Whether a public or private persona, surely you are still entitled to some privacy, especially concerning body parts. There is also the added dimension of being royalty, everything you say or do or wear impacts millions of people, it is understandable to retain an air of caution when making proclamations about one’s health.

Not to mention the ridiculousity of some of the suggestions. If my tumour had been a sham to disguise the fact I was getting fat inserted into my rear, I’m pretty sure it would become fairly obvious. You don’t get your butt lifted so you can cover it in a winter coat at the trooping of the guards ceremony. You’d probably just own the procedure, say it gave you confidence, and then become the face (or butt) of some eco-friendly athleisure brand. 

There are many reasons why a person may not share a diagnosis including a fear of being perceived as weak, or somehow to blame, or it's plain old embarrassing. Perhaps, they may not want the sympathy or speculation the declaration might bring. They may simply prefer a path to recovery that avoids constant reminders. I agree that it is important that a patient’s privacy is protected.

All of that said, as someone who has been through a lot of diagnoses, when you feel comfortable to share, it can have a wonderful ripple effect. According to neuroscience, humans are hardwired to keep their species going, mainly through procreation, but also by contributing to society. If something has a 1 in a billion chance of happening, that means right now 8 people in the world are going through it. As unique as we are, there is usually somebody somewhere going through a similar shared experience. As patients, we do not have to go through things alone, 

The irony is that as we age (and the illnesses become more serious and plentiful), we seem to shed the concerns about body confidentiality that were so precious to us in our youth. The pride of pristine health can often be swapped for a pride in just how many illnesses we have. I was surprised at how open King Charles was about his enlarged prostate. Apparently it was a decision he made to help others, after his announcement there was a 1000% increase in searches for prostate enlargement on the NHS website. Soon after he announced he had cancer, great efforts were made to stress it was not prostate cancer but no other information given. A reversion to the more opaque communique of old? Perhaps, it was no longer his decision.

As a final thought, sometimes we want to share our story but we can’t. 

A few years ago when I was in hospital, an 80 year old woman on the ward came to talk to me, I thought she was 60 (I'm a terrible judge of age and may have to resort to plastic surgery in time, especially if I continue to think a woman approaching the end phase of her existence, is in the prime of her life).

She came over explicitly to share her war stories, she told me she’d recently had open heart surgery. I was about to pipe up “Same here!” but I realized that would steal her moment so I said nothing but nodded for her to continue. She talked about how she battled through it and I told her how brave she was (and I meant it - the woman was 60 for God sake). She said, "Wait for it", then revealed she had battled cancer a few years back (once again I held my tongue and didn’t share my own cancer story). I told her she was a great survivor and looked amazing (she did!). 

Sharing her story had meant a lot to her and I was glad I was there to hear it and give her the praise and encouragement she deserved. Before she left my bedside she said “And look at you, a young one, with nothin’ wrong with ya! You don’t know how good you have it!”

I just continued to smile until she disappeared behind the curtain. Sometimes staying quiet is the hardest path of all.

For original article read here - Are we too embarrassed to talk about illness