Health

How Bowie Battled Illness in Private

He was hardly alone in keeping medical struggles close to the vest

As word continues to spread about the death of legendary rocker David Bowie, so, too, is the shock deepening over the 69-year-old’s secret 18-month battle against cancer.

We often feel incredibly connected to musicians such as Bowie, as their soundtracks provide the backdrop to some of our most intimate moments and memories. It seems odd, then, when these stars don’t share their life-changing diagnoses with those of us who adore and appreciate them. What happens to them has an impact on us, too.

Cynthia Weiss, a 45-year-old ovarian cancer survivor from Jacksonville, Florida, acknowledges that Bowie’s death was surprising to her. But his decision to keep his diagnosis private was not.

“No matter who you are, if you’re given a cancer diagnosis, you’re probably trying to figure out how to grapple with it, how to come to terms with it, how to accept it,” Weiss told LifeZette.

Weiss is a senior communications specialist with Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus. Her job is to control the flow of information to the media about anything happening at the hospital, and Mayo Clinic is an institution that attracts patients from all over the world. A number of them have been and are quite famous.

Based on her own experience with life-threatening diagnoses, she said it’s easy to understand why anyone would want to guard their privacy.

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“Those feelings of concern, those questions, the angst about just receiving a diagnosis in and of itself are probably amplified by being in the public eye,” Weiss said.

Bowie is by no means the first celebrity to keep his cancer or any other devastating diagnosis close to the vest.

The world was stunned as actor Alan Rickman’s family released this statement of his death this week as well: “The actor and director Alan Rickman has died from cancer at the age of 69. He was surrounded by family and friends.”

Grief is pouring out from close friends and fellow actors, who are remembering him for his humor, intelligence, kindness and his extraordinary work in films such as the “Harry Potter” series and “Die Hard.”

Just this past September, bestselling author Jackie Collins died at age 77. People magazine reported Collins had been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2009. She had waited years before telling even her famous sister, Joan Collins, about it. She especially did not want the public to know.

“I didn’t want to be on the front of the Enquirer with ‘two weeks to live,’” she told People magazine.

Related: David Bowie, Fearless Icon

Other celebrities have shared their personal health battles but waited until long after their treatment was over.

Academy Award-winning actress Kathy Bates kept her ovarian cancer diagnosis in 2003 a secret, but in 2008 she made a video for the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance.

In the video, she talked about how lucky she felt to be able to tell her story. It was a diagnosis that changed her. “It focused me on what was important to me. I wanted to live and I wanted to enjoy what life was left to me,” she said in the OCNA video.

Bates said she thought her story might help other women catch their ovarian cancer sooner.

“That’s why I wanted to finally share my story, because I didn’t have the courage when I was going through it, and I was just focused on my own survival,” she said in the video.

Weiss, the Mayo Clinic employee, had a similar reaction to her own initial diagnosis and treatment. In part, it was due to the fact she seeking employment after recently moving to Florida with her husband.

“Just given the uncertainty of the job market, I was very fearful that someone would learn about my diagnosis and hold that against me, see that as a sign of weakness,” said Weiss.

When her cancer returned in 2007, she felt very differently. Newly employed with Mayo Clinic, she was ready to share her story. Her position allowed her an easy platform.

“I realized I had an opportunity in sharing the knowledge I gained to help others who may be going through it,” Weiss said.

This article has been updated to reflect the news of Alan Rickman’s passing.

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