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Playing the illness card

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April 12, 2007

041207wulhner.jpgKentucky state Rep. Addia Wuchner (right) wants everyone to know that she’s beating cancer.

She wants to make sure people understand that chemotherapy is wicked, that it steals your hair, your eyebrows, even your toenails, but in the end, you will pull through.

Wuchner is revealing the details of her medical file because, as an elected official, she feels an obligation to be open and honest with the people who put her in office.

“People put their trust in us as elected officials, and we extend that same trust back to the community,” she said.

Across the country, public figures who are battling serious illness are not only choosing to be open about their disease, they are releasing intimate details of their medical condition in the interest of full disclosure.

Gone are the days when Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy concealed grave illnesses from the public view. Nowadays, politicians who are diagnosed with a serious disease feel almost a sense of obligation to make their conditions known.

Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both alerted the public when they were stricken with serious health problems — Reagan with Alzheimer’s disease, Clinton with blocked coronary arteries requiring quadruple bypass heart surgery.

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who may seek the Republican nomination for president next year, disclosed Wednesday that he has lymphoma. Thompson said the disease was diagnosed two years ago and is now in remission.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., publicly battled Hodgkin’s disease in 2005, and Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., revealed last year that he has been diagnosed with leukemia.

Even political spouses and associates who are battling serious illness feel the need to disclose their condition.

Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, revealed at a press conference late last month that the breast cancer she thought she had beaten has returned and spread to her bones. She even brought along her doctor to answer reporters’ questions about her illness and possible treatments.

A few days later, White House spokesman Tony Snow, who had his colon removed two years ago, announced that his cancer has returned and spread to his liver and elsewhere in his body.

In politics, such disclosures are not only inevitable, “it has become completely expected,” said Barron H. Lerner, a physician at Columbia University Medical Center in New York and the author of a book about celebrities who have battled illness in public.

“In most cases, I think certainly with politicians themselves, the public does have a right to know,” Lerner said. “It’s one thing if you are a Hollywood celebrity (who is ill). But if you are electing someone to public office, the public deserves to know whether or not that person is healthy enough to carry out the task.”

Some politicians choose to disclose a grave illness because they figure the news will eventually get out and that revealing it themselves allows them to control the message. Others, like Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., have no choice. Johnson suffered a severe brain hemorrhage last December and has required months of hospitalization and rehabilitation.

Regardless of their reasons for going public, politicians and other celebrities do a public service when they are candid about dealing with disease, said Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society’s home office in Atlanta.

The number of Americans undergoing colorectal screenings jumped considerably after television news personality Katie Couric underwent a colonoscopy on air, Lichtenfeld said.

Likewise, Edwards and Snow have “undoubtedly raised interest in their respective diseases and cancer in general,” he said. “They have also given representation to literally thousands of cancer patients in this country who deal with these issues every day and go on living.”

For politicians, candor does come with risks. After John and Elizabeth Edwards revealed that her cancer had returned, the couple received an outpouring of public sympathy. But some bloggers accused John Edwards of exploiting his wife’s illness to boost his struggling presidential campaign.

“I think that’s very unfair,” said Wuchner, who, as a Republican, isn’t exactly of the same political persuasion as Edwards.

“I just don’t believe in my heart of hearts that anyone would do that for political gain, and I don’t believe the (former) senator would use his wife that way.”

Wuchner, 51, was diagnosed with breast cancer last October after a routine mammogram. She started taking aggressive chemotherapy treatments in early November, just a few days before she was elected to a second term.

At first, Wuchner shared her diagnosis with just a few political associates. Some of them urged her not to go public, fearing it would be a “chink” in her political armor.

“I just really didn’t feel comfortable with that response,” she said. “I feel like you are elected to serve. If God put me here as a public figure and I had cancer, then I thought it was also a way to help other people.”

–MICHAEL COLLINS

2 Responses to Playing the illness card

  1. Steven Horn

    April 12, 2007 at 11:45 am

    Cancer, drug re-hab, marital issues, alcoholism – these are all very, very serious personal issues. Note – I said personal.
    I find it disgusting that politicians and other public figures use these and other serious personal issues to further their careers.

  2. David Rosenberg

    April 12, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    Anyone that catches the media’s eye that contracts a disease, is obligated to speak out. Politicians have the obligation to the people represented, by him/her. Actors, Authors, Radio/Televison hosts, anyone that has some sort of audience. These individuals that have a medical problem can be of help to anyone with the same ailment. It will bring attention to it. They can promote donations for research to fund a cure or a medicine to enable those with the problem to live with it.
    There was a Soap Opera star on a show my wife watched. I happen to see it one time. The actor was slurring his lines. I asked if that was part of the role. My wife said no. A few days afterward, it was announced the actor had ALS, Lou Gerhig Disease. It wasn’t as well known at the time. The actor brought it out, more in the public awareness. Donations started to pour in.
    I don’t wish any person to be ill but, I’m waiting for someone known that has my disease. It has only been identified for about 30 or 40 years. It is very rare with no one doing any research on it, to find a cure.

    Not just so the people he represents are aware