How News Anchor's Difficult On-Air Cancer Revelation Could Help Others

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When Illinois news anchor Dave Benton made a major on-air announcement recently, it was reportage at its most personal: Benton, 51, revealed that his doctors had told him that he has just four to six months left to live — the latest, most heartbreaking chapter in what has been an ongoing report about his yearlong battle with brain cancer. Benton, who has been with Champaign’s WCIA-3 news team for almost nine years, completed radiation treatment in February, but a new tumor grew back.

“We’ve got some serious stuff to discuss, and we are an open book, and we wanted to let you guys in on something that we’ve known for a while,” Benton’s co-anchor Jennifer Roscoe told viewers at the end of their nightly newscast on Thursday.

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“Basically my cancer is back and it’s too big for surgery and radiation,” Benton said, his voice shaky in an attempt to contain his emotion. “Doctors have told me that I may have four to six months to live.” He added that he’ll be trying a new antibody chemotherapy treatment to help slow the tumor’s growth. “As you know,” he said, “I’m a born-again Christian, I believe that I’m in God’s hands, I’m at peace. I know that he’s going to take care of the days ahead, and that the goal here is to have the best ones possible.”

Roscoe praised her coworker’s “amazing attitude” and his ability to deflect his own suffering by his noting that he is not the only one with cancer in their community. “Right now, it is about you,” she told him. “I’ve had you sitting next to me for nine years, and I’m going to hold on to every single day that I can.”

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Benton’s was easily one of the most intense on-air newscaster revelations in what has become an ongoing series of them, particularly on the national stage. In recent years, we’ve heard Robin Roberts’ disclosure that she had a rare bone-marrow disorder (which came after sharing news of her breast cancer and before she came out as a lesbian), Amy Robach’s revelation (after submitting to an on-air mammogram weeks earlier) that she would be undergoing a double mastectomy, Julie Chen’s big reveal that she’d had plastic surgery to reduce the Chinese look of her eyes, and Dan Harris’s discussion of his former drug use and panic attacks.

On local Tennessee station WMC-TV last year, meanwhile, anchor Pam McKelvy whipped off her wig at the end of a segment about her battle with breast cancer, revealing her post-chemo natural hair, which was slowly growing back. Lee Thomas, of Fox 2 News in Detroit, has been frank with viewers about his struggle with vitiligo, a pigment disorder. And in LaCrosse, Wis., anchor Jennifer Livingston opened up in 2012 about her lifelong struggle with weight after being prompted by a fat-shaming letter from a viewer.

The trend of self-revelation is not exactly brand new, noted Regina Tuma, a media psychology professor with the Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif.. “There is actual a long history of sharing that predates social media,” she told Yahoo Health, referring to early talk shows, including “Oprah” when it first burst onto the scene in the 1980s, as well as moments such as when Katie Couric submitted to an on-air colonoscopy in 2000. “The way anchors related clearly has changed,” she said. “We’re seeing a sort of horizontality.”

And that is related to social media, of course. Some have even raised the idea that such personal disclosures could be strategic ratings boosters. But they could also actually be healthy for the news anchors — as well as for the audience members glued to their screens, according to Pamela Rutledge, director of the nonprofit Media Psychology Research Center.

“It’s fitting with the social media environment, as this connectivity has created an expectation of and a demand for authenticity. And it’s a very positive thing,” Rutledge told Yahoo Health. “It takes a lot of courage to make a painful, private thing public. It’s very hard, even if you know better, to not feel like there is something wrong with you if you are ill. Overcoming that helps to challenge stigmas and helps other people to partly get over that self blame or self pity and seek help and get social support, which is so important.” For those watching, she said, it’s an opportunity to see positive role models facing adversity, which provides people with positive behavior to mimic. “We’re all struggling with things,” Rutledge noted, “and knowing others are as well is both comforting an encouraging.”

For the news anchors making the disclosures, she added, the ensuing response can bring much-needed comfort and support — which may be particularly helpful right now for Benton, whose slew of supporters praised him on his Facebook page for being “courageous,” “a wonderful testimony to our Lord,” and “truly inspirational.” Rutledge expressed amazement at his composure during his on-air announcement, saying, “He’s up against a very difficult challenge, as he was essentially given a death sentence.” She compared his situation — and possibly impact — to that of the late Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch, who gave a heartbreakingly honest “Last Lecture” before dying of pancreatic cancer in 2008, making him a viral hero on YouTube as well as a best-selling author.

“His fate is ours, sped up,” wrote Jeffrey Zaslow, a Wall Street Journal columnist who covered the lecture and, in turn, brought it wider awareness. And that, in a nutshell, may explain the value — and unending fascination — for all of us when it comes to such painful disclosures by those in the public eye.