The King’s public cancer battle is a far cry from George VI’s illness, kept secret from even himself

George and Charles
George and Charles
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A cancer diagnosis weighs heavily on any family, adding fear and uncertainty to discomfort the sufferer might already be experiencing. It is tough on the patient and on their loved ones, too.

Those difficulties are multiplied for the Royal family, who must mix private anxiety with public duty. In announcing the King’s diagnosis and treatment, without going into specifics, Buckingham Palace showed yet another way in which the royals have modernised.

“The King is grateful to his medical team for their swift intervention, which was made possible thanks to his recent hospital procedure,” the palace statement said. “His majesty has chosen to share his diagnosis to prevent speculation and in the hope it may assist public understanding for all those around the world who are affected by cancer.”

The King recently spent three nights in hospital being treated for an enlarged prostate
The King recently spent three nights in hospital being treated for an enlarged prostate - Heathcliff O'Malley

This frankness represents a stark departure from how the Royal family has handled previous cancer diagnoses. Earlier generations would never have dreamed of being so open about any medical condition, let alone something as foreboding as a tumour.

In September 1951 George VI, a heavy smoker, had his left lung removed for what was euphemistically referred to as “structural abnormalities”. In reality, it was a carcinoma. Yet the king’s doctors withheld his diagnosis from the public, the medical profession – and even the king himself.

Although he seemed to be recovering from the procedure, he died suddenly five months later, in February 1952. As George VI had suffered from vascular disease, it was assumed at the time this had caused “coronary thrombosis”. Since then, it has been speculated that this was the result of complications from his cancer spreading.

Feb 7, 1952: The Telegraph front page after King George VI’s death
Feb 7, 1952: The Telegraph front page after King George VI’s death

Queen Elizabeth, similarly, dealt with cancer in private. In his posthumous biography of the late Queen’s mother in 2009, William Shawcross revealed that she had been treated for the disease twice. In 1966 she had a tumour removed from her colon. At the time, Clarence House had said only that she had undergone abdominal surgery to remove an obstruction. In 1984, she had another operation, to remove a tumour from her breast. The official line then was that she had been in hospital for “tests”. She recovered from both procedures and lived until 2002, when she was 101.

As recently as September 2022, when Elizabeth II died, the cause of death was given as “old age”. But according to Queen Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait, a biography by Gyles Brandreth published two months afterwards, she had been suffering from myeloma, a rare form of bone cancer. Brandreth, who had been friends with Prince Philip, said Elizabeth II’s doctor had known about her condition for some time. When his claims caused a stir, Brandreth said: “I really didn’t want to upset anyone, yet if it’s going to be confirmed – and one day it will – at least I, as a reporter, am saying what was out there.”

The King’s decision to be open about his condition, and treatment, reflects a modern medical environment that is very different from the one in which George VI’s cancer was kept from him. Medical conditions are no longer thought of as secrets to be kept under cloak and dagger. A cancer diagnosis is less of a cause for pessimism than it used to be, with modern diagnosis and treatment improving outcomes for almost every form of the disease.

George VI with his grandson, a young Prince Charles
1951: George VI with his grandson, a young Prince Charles - AFP via Getty Images

While the King is the most senior royal to have come forward about his cancer, he is not quite the first. In 2002, Princess Michael of Kent showed that royals could be open about these things, when she revealed that she had been treated for skin cancer. She said that she felt “very fortunate” because the cancer wasn’t life-threatening. In 2014 her husband, Prince Michael said that he considered his medical matters private, but confirmed that he had been successfully treated for prostate cancer. Last year, the Duchess of York announced that she had undergone a mastectomy. Two weeks ago, she revealed that she had also been diagnosed with skin cancer. “Naturally another cancer diagnosis has been a shock, but I’m in good spirits and grateful for the many messages of love and support,” she said.

This is in keeping with how many cancer sufferers cope with their diagnosis today. They remain positive about their condition, express gratitude for support from their friends and family, and hope that by coming forward they will encourage others to be vigilant about their own health.

According to the palace statement on Monday, the King remains “wholly positive about his treatment” and “looks forward to returning to full public duty as soon as possible.”

In being honest about his cancer, King Charles is reinforcing what millions of non-royals prove every year, all over the world: that how you handle such a diagnosis can be a display not of weakness, but of strength.

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