Celebrities Talk About Their Illnesses in Vanity Fair

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.



  • Hi Dr. A,
    I had to laugh at Christopher Hitchins writing: “One almost develops a kind of elitism about the uniqueness of one’s own personal disorder.”
    I have found this to be very true for heart disease, which I was diagnosed with two years ago.
    I call it the “Hierarchy of Heart Disease”. I think I invented the concept, but many heart attack survivors like me have reported experiencing a similar reaction when telling others about their own diagnosis.
    For example, on my very first evening attending our local Heart & Sroke Foundation’s ‘Heart To Heart” Cardiac Support Group meeting, the man sitting next to me asked me, basically: “What are you in for?” When I told him that I had had a serious heart attack and now had a stainless steel stent implanted in my Left Anterior Descending coronary artery which had been 99% blocked, he chirped: “ME TOO! Except I have THREE stents!”
    Well! What could I say? How could I possibly compete with THREE stents!?!
    Five months after my heart attack, I met a wonderful group of women survivors like me at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and we immediately began comparing cardiac notes, who had what, who had more than the rest, whose story was most dramatic, when one woman simply said: “I’ve had a heart transplant!”
    Transplant is the highest level of elite cardiac event in the Hierarchy. All other cardiac events pale pathetically by comparison. I think the rest of us just sat quietly and ate our breakfast in silence after that. Let’s face it, nobody wants to hear your puny little heart attack story when there’s a heart transplant at the table!! :-)
    More on this at: “The Seven Levels in the Hierarchy Of Heart Disease” at: http://myheartsisters.org/2010/07/21/hierarchy-of-heart-disease/

  • This is such a brilliant little piece I’m going to give it its own post. I hope you are cool with it. I will call it “The Hierarchy of Heart Disease.”

  • Yes, I’m cool. At least that’s what I’ve been trying to tell my children for years…. :-)

  • Haha! I have teenagers so I can relate!


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