A different cancer experience, without a video

A very different experience of the disease awaits the Princess of Wales. PHOTO: REUTERS
A very different experience of the disease awaits the Princess of Wales. PHOTO: REUTERS
The Princess of Wales’ video announcement of her cancer diagnosis shows how bizarre the British Royal Family has become.

This is the woman whose job has been to provide the royal heirs, be a dutiful wife, to smile and wave and shake myriad hands, look impeccable at all times, always speak reassuringly and admiringly to those she meets at her public engagements, and never utter a disparaging word or tell us what she really thinks about anything vaguely controversial.

This way of behaving and being is so far removed from anything I understand about everyday life that, if she were a friend of mine, I would be trying to find her help or even an escape route.

It seems over the top that now she has been diagnosed with cancer she conveys that news by fronting a video screened worldwide.

Why couldn’t the palace have just issued a statement about it, and in a timely fashion?

If this unnecessary ordeal for the princess was designed to counter the mad conspiracy theories about what she might have been up to since she had abdominal surgery at the start of the year, is that a wise precedent?

Whatever the reason, it highlights the difficulty of maintaining boundaries between the great unwashed and the monarchy when much of the public sees the titled as celebrities, albeit ones sucking on the public teat.

Catherine has urged everyone facing cancer not to lose faith or hope: "You are not alone."

But her experience is likely to be much different from some cancer patients here.

She won’t have to worry about a lack of cohesion in care, forgoing treatment because she can’t afford to travel away from home, the shortage of specialists or limits to the medicines budget.

No expense will be spared to ensure she gets the best of everything.

Palace staff will be able to screen out well-wishers suggesting "cures" — anything from extreme diets to shark cartilage and faith healing. Lesser mortals bombarded with this stuff must listen and remain polite.

Any parent who has had to explain their cancer diagnosis to their children will understand the reticence of the princess to speak earlier or indeed divulge more publicly.

It is not always easy to know what your children grasp about what they have been told.

When my husband was diagnosed with bowel cancer, decades ago now, one of my young sons, fresh from his knowledge about the role of worms in the garden, reckoned they could be deployed to gobble up the bad stuff in Dad. If only.

Unlike Catherine and William, most families would not have the headache of having to protect their children from what might be hysterical or just plain wrong media coverage of the illness.

My husband and I were able to discuss his situation with the teachers at our children’s school, explaining we were being straight forward and open with the offspring about it and, if the subject arose in the classroom, that’s what we expected them to be. We were not worried we would have to fight our way through the paparazzi to have this talk or that the teachers would blab to the media.

When I was a health reporter, I was privileged to share stories of cancer patients. They were usually people let down by the health system in one way or another and, while they were upset they were able to move beyond their bitterness with grace and the hope telling their story might contribute towards improved care for others.

My husband was also willing to share and discuss his case when we both participated in a lecture to medical school students at a time when he knew his cancer would kill him.

I fell in love with the student who went beyond the stark medical facts to ask how that prognosis was affecting our family. I hope that person has not lost sight of that holistic approach.

After my husband’s death I also spoke a couple of times to nursing students asking them to be aware of more than just the patient in the bed and to understand that the hospital experience with its unfamiliar and sometimes peculiar routines could be overwhelming and stressful for a normally assertive person.

To illustrate that, I’d tell them about being told off by a hospital nurse during one of my husband’s hospital stints because I was using a teaspoon when making a cup of tea in the ward kitchen. The teaspoons were only to be used by staff. The rest of us were to use wooden tongue depressors.

Instead of questioning such nonsense, I felt like a naughty child and nervous about ever making another hot drink.

As the princess says, those affected by cancer are not alone, but it might not always feel like that.

 - Elspeth McLean is a Dunedin writer.