When Buckingham Palace announced on Monday that King Charles III had been diagnosed with cancer and would end his public treatment commitments, it predictably sparked a firestorm of questions.
What kind of cancer? How advanced is it? What form of treatment? How long would he be gone? And the essential, though often unspoken, question when a patient faces a potentially existential threat to their health: Would they survive?
The palace, paradoxically, fueled this frenzy by revealing more information about the king’s health than about Queen Elizabeth II or any previous British monarch. He said he did so at the request of Charles himself, who wanted to “share his diagnosis to avoid speculation and in the hope that it might help the public understand all those around the world who are affected by the cancer “.
As well-intentioned as the king may have been, the palace’s decision to release some facts but not others – the medical equivalent of lifting the curtain halfway – raised far more questions than it answered. replied.
Britain now finds itself in an agonizing middle ground, aware that its 75-year-old king is suffering from a life-threatening illness, but not knowing exactly what that means. With treatment, could he live for many more years, as cancer survivors his age often do? Or should the British prepare for the death of another ruler?
This search for signposts in a foggy landscape was demonstrated in Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s remarks on Tuesday morning. Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live, Mr Sunak said he was “shocked and sad” to hear the news about Charles. But then he added: “Luckily it was caught early. »
These encouraging words made the headlines in the British media. But when journalists pressed the 10 Downing Street spokesperson on the basis on which Mr Sunak had based his assessment, they were referred to the palace’s initial statement, which praised the “rapid intervention” of the Charles’ medical team.
This four-paragraph document was a tug-of-war between disclosure and omission. The king suffered from “a form of cancer”, it is said, which was detected after his treatment for “benign prostatic hypertrophy”. But the press release does not specify what type. Palace officials clarified to reporters that it was not prostate cancer, which would have been the most common cancer detected during prostate surgery.
With that ruled out, cancer experts have put forward other theories. “Lung and bladder cancers are also common in older men,” said Mieke Van Hemelrijck, professor of cancer epidemiology at King’s College London.
Commenters with no medical experience have floated hypotheses: “Lymphoma? » said a royal observer on Sky News on Monday evening. The presenter quickly observed that this was speculation. On Tuesday, Sky interviewed Joan Bakewell, a 90-year-old journalist and member of the House of Lords who survived cancer, about the need to come to terms with her mortality.
Buckingham Palace said it would not publish regular bulletins on the king’s condition. Palace officials also asked reporters not to attempt to contact doctors or other professionals treating Charles.
On Tuesday, British media were content with images of Prince Harry arriving at his father’s London residence, Clarence House, for a visit. Later, a smiling King and Queen Camilla were pictured in a limousine, returning to their country residence, Sandringham, where Charles was recovering from his prostate operation until last weekend.
That the palace can expect British tabloids to refrain from investigating the king’s health is a testament to the complex nature of the relationship between the royal family and the press. Although tabloid editors consider many things about the royal family to be fair game – from their legal troubles to their personal lives – there are some topics on which the media is less likely to question the private lives of family.
This power dynamic was evident late last year when the Dutch edition of a new book about the royal family contained the inflammatory claim that Charles and Catherine, Prince William’s wife, had expressed concerns on the skin color of Prince Harry and his wife Meghan’s unborn child.
The author, Omid Scobie, insisted the passage had been included in error and the Dutch publisher pulled the book from stores – but not before the names of Charles and Catherine had circulated widely online social.
Yet no British news organization published the names until Piers Morgan, a prominent broadcaster, reported them on his show. Some media critics expected the palace to take legal action against Mr. Morgan; ultimately, this is not the case.
For all the limitations of palace communications, royal historians have pointed out that he still revealed far more about Charles than previous monarchs – or even other current members of the royal family.
The king’s grandfather, George VI, was operated on in 1951 for what doctors later concluded was lung cancer. The palace hid most of the details, compounding the shock when the king died five months later.
Kensington Palace has said little about the abdominal operation that recently led Catherine to spend almost two weeks in a London hospital. Buckingham Palace informed the public in advance that Charles would enter the same hospital, the London Clinic, to undergo treatment for an enlarged prostate.
Britain’s National Health Service reported that the day after the announcement, its web page offering advice on how to treat an enlarged prostate attracted 11 times more visitors than a typical day. How long patients will have to wait for a prostate procedure in the busy NHS is another question.
The tension between the royal family’s right to privacy and the public’s interest in it reflects a broader debate in Britain about privacy, more acute than in the United States, particularly on issues like health.
Additionally, members of the royal family play a more ceremonial role in British society than, say, political leaders, which some argue should entitle them to a modicum of privacy, even if the king, in as head of state, occupies a singular role.
Yet the royal family is not the only British institution facing scrutiny over its reticence over medical information. In 2020, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent three days in the intensive care unit of a London hospital with severe Covid-19. Downing Street issued daily updates saying he was in “very good spirits”.
It was only after his release that Mr Johnson himself admitted that nurses had saved his life by giving him oxygen throughout the night. “Things,” he said, “could have gone one way or the other. »