Reading about celebrities and their experience with illness is always interesting to me. Celebrity can be a bully pulpit. People like Michael J. Fox choose to take their story public as a way to inform, educate and inspire. Katie Couric did the same after her husband died of colon cancer, going so far as to broadcast her colonoscopy on the Today Show. Millions are touched and very possibly lives saved because of their efforts.
Today at breakfast I flipped though the latest Vanity Fair magazine which I had swiped from the office (I'm the boss, I can do that! ;-). There was not just one but two articles about illness this month! Barbara Walters with her tale about open heart surgery and Christopher Hitchins's latest chronicle about living with stage four esophogeal cancer.
I find it interesting that people coping with illness are so promenently exposed in a glossy high-end magazine. I mean, this isn't Reader's Digest or the AARP monthly. OK, they are celebrities, but still…
The articles are very different, as different as the individuals who wrote them. Barbara Walters blithely tells about pressure in her chest as the only symptom that anything was wrong; if you don't have an annual check up you are "a dope". She name drops like crazy. Oprah sent her a white blanket rather than flowers, wasn't that thoughtful?
Christoper Hitchins is a writer known for being an atheist and an acerbic critic of just about everybody. He tells of how uncool it is for complete strangers to tell you about how they understand exactly how you feel because Uncle So & So had liver cancer and died a horrible death from it.
I like them both. Barbara is smart and nice. Hitchins is smart and cutting like a razor.
Both inform from an oddly acceptable self-centered place. Hitchens is totally up front about it. He says, "One almost develops a kind of elitism about the uniqueness of one's own personal disorder," and "Cancer victimhood contains a permanent temptation to be self-centered and even solipsistic." He's British so he can say things that way. But it is also true, not only of people with cancer but anyone in chronic pain or living with the ups and downs of chronic illness. We try hard to be in the world while our illness pulls us to conserve our energies by isolating and becoming self-absorbed. It's a tricky thing to balance.
Miss Manners and the Big C, by Christopher Hitchins
Her Change of Heart, by Barbara Walters is not available online yet. You can find it in the December 2010 Vanity Fair. Cher is on the cover looking strangely preserved for a 64 year old woman. To make up for the article, here is Barbara talking about it with her buddies on The View.