The Legacy of Celebrity Patients

The recent attention to the illnesses of Farrah Fawcett, Michael J. Fox and Ed Bradley reminds us how important celebrity cases have become to the public’s awareness of diseases, treatments and medical controversies.

My new book, When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine, traces 13 famous medical cases beginning with Lou Gehrig, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 1939. Others whose illnesses are described include Margaret Bourke-White (Parkinson’s disease), Brian Piccolo (embryonal cancer), Steve McQueen (mesothelioma), Rita Hayworth (Alzheimer’s disease), Arthur Ashe (AIDS), Lorenzo Odone (adrenoleukodystrophy) and Lance Armstrong (testicular cancer).

The three recent cases nicely demonstrate several themes in the book. When the actress Fawcett was diagnosed with anal cancer, a rare disorder affecting the end of the intestinal tract, in October, she immediately went public with the news. Like many other sick celebrities, she viewed her diagnosis not only as an opportunity to educate the public about a specific disease but to destigmatize a potentially embarrassing condition.

Fawcett also announced her intention to fight her disease to the maximum. “I am resolutely strong,” she announced, “and I am determined to bite the bullet and fight the fight while going through the next six weeks of cutting-edge, state-of-the-art treatment.” Fawcett will hopefully triumph over her cancer, as did Lance Armstrong, but it is important to note that many other “fighters,” such as Steve McQueen, eventually succumbed to their cancers.

Michael J. Fox, the well-known actor of “Family Ties” and “Back to the Future” fame, exemplifies the sick celebrity who forms a foundation and actively campaigns for increased funding for research into his or her disease. Fox’s advocacy of stem cell research became a political hot potato during the last election cycle, but other celebrities, most notably Christopher Reeve, have also pushed the envelope in pursuit of radically new treatment options for severe conditions.

Ed Bradley’s case was a throwback. When it became known that the veteran journalist had concealed the chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) that killed him earlier this month, there was some resentment that he had not gone public while he was still alive. After all, it was argued, he could have done a great service in informing the public about CLL. A lung disease activist who recently attended one of my lectures expressed a similar regret that no celebrity with that disease has yet become a recognizable spokesperson. Still, celebrities—other than politicians—are surely under no obligation to tell the public anything about their illnesses.

In sum, celebrity patients have provided important guideposts to patients and families confronting serious diseases. While such stories should not replace “evidence-based medicine” as a mechanism for guiding treatment options, they provide both information and inspiration at a time of great anxiety.

Barron H. Lerner

Barron H. Lerner is the Angelica Berrie-Gold Foundation Associate Professor of Medicine and Public Heath at Columbia University. He is the author of When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine (Johns Hopkins, 2006).