• King Charles has been diagnosed with cancer

  • Psychotherapist Sue Cowan-Jenssen considers how his being open about his diagnosis helps to de-shame cancer, and also reminds us all of our own mortality

The impact of the news that the King was suffering from cancer has been striking.

Until his reign, royal ailments were kept secret. It fostered the illusion that the Royals were not like the rest of us. The fact that the late Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh seemed rarely to be unwell helped maintain the illusion of their invincibility. It is hard to let go of an almost mystic belief that if you are rich, famous, or royal enough you are somehow protected from mortal ailments or mishaps. 

An example of this, was the resistance some people had to the news that Princess Diana had died in a car crash because she was not wearing a seat belt and the driver of her car had been drinking. Conspiracies offering alternative explanations took hold. She was murdered by the establishment for any number of reasons. It was difficult to believe or accept that a ‘ordinary’ car crash could happen to such a privileged individual. This is not to deny that wealth and privilege can buy the very best health care but ultimately we can all get ill.

Kate Garraway, after the death of her husband Derek Draper, talked on ‘Good Morning Britain’ about how sustained she was by the support and love she had been shown during the four years she had cared for her husband whose health had been destroyed by Covid. It had been a hugely difficult and worrying time and her life and the lives of her children had been profoundly impacted both negatively and positively. Her parting words in the interview was that she was very aware that her story was not unique or even special. Everyday, in many, many households, most without the financial support she could muster, people were facing the struggles she faced. Everyday, people of all ages, privileges are being diagnosed with cancer. According to Cancer UK over 360,000 people in 2020 got a new diagnosis. None of us are immune.  

By owning up to this reality, the King is doing something genuinely useful. He helps de-shame cancer. In recent years we are told that the chances of developing cancer are much higher if you smoke, are overweight with a poor diet and drink too much. Doubtless this is true but this narrative can also fuel the belief that if you get cancer it is ‘your fault’. 

The victim blaming of the sufferer has a long history. I can remember, as a young student, being told by a psychology lecturer that you can ‘always tell’ who will get cancer. The people they described were the ones who withheld their feelings and were uptight emotionally. Since the people I knew who had developed cancer were the very opposite of this description, I was aghast. There was also no evidence of this theory. 

The victim blaming serves the purpose of self-protection and self-delusion. If I do all the right things, like eat healthily, exercise and do not smoke, I will not get ill. Clearly there is truth that we can improve our chances of living longer healthy lives if we live healthily but ultimately we are all mortal. The King as far as we know stays fit, eats fresh, organic food and does not smoke. Yet he is vulnerable to illness like the rest of us and he has developed some form of cancer. That is an unlucky, scary, normal fact but it is not a failure nor a sign of weakness. 

Sue Cowan-Jenssen is a verified Welldoing psychotherapist in London and online

Further reading

6 tips for when you feel anxious about visiting the doctor

After my cancer diagnosis, therapy helped me feel less alone

5 things I've learned about mortality