Experts say withholding information about the type of cancer in obituaries reinforces the disease’s persistent stigma.
Kurt Godwin’s obituaries in The Washington Post and on Legacy.com contained all the basics: He was the son of a CIA officer. He lived in Alexandria, Va., and was married. He taught art at Virginia Commonwealth and Catholic universities. He died Sept. 19, 2014, at the age of 58.
The cause of death was another matter.
“The cause was cancer, said his wife, Karin Godwin,” The Post obituary noted. “Kurt Douglas Godwin passed away at INOVA Fairfax Hospital, due to stage 4 Cancer complications,” read a slightly more detailed death notice on Legacy.
Godwin purposely withheld a salient fact: what kind of cancer. She didn’t think her husband wanted others to know, she said.
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The same impulse was on display this month when rock legend David Bowie and actor Alan Rickman died of cancer and their families did not divulge the exact form of the disease in their announcements. Even in an era when cancer is discussed more openly and of cancer-specific foundations, relatives of the ordinary and famous still omit the exact cause of death when it comes to the C-word.
Cancer will kill nearly 600,000 Americans this year, according to the American Cancer Society. Experts say withholding information about the type of cancer in obituaries reinforces the disease’s persistent stigma and can deprive researchers and advocates of opportunities to educate people about specific cancers.
Some relatives, though, say their loved ones would be embarrassed by disclosing which organ failed them, especially if the body part felt like too much information, or if it was the liver or lung, where cancers often originate because of smoking or drinking. “The cause was cancer” should suffice, they argue, because detail diverts attention from the person’s life.
Obituary writers at The Post and The New York Times estimate families resist naming specific cancers about 15 percent of the time. The news organizations typically ask for the type of cancer, particularly if the person who died was young, but an omission would never rule out an obituary. “If we push too much, it carries the risk of sounding to the family like we have a lurid obsession,” said Adam Bernstein, The Post’s obituaries editor. “But ‘cancer’ is very general. It’s like saying someone died of a ‘disease.’ Well, what kind of disease?”
In the case of Bowie’s death Jan. 10, it was announced on his official Facebook page that he died after a “courageous 18-month battle with cancer.” Soon after, some of his fans began to wonder which cancer.
“I understand the value of privacy but now that we know that he was battling the cancer which ended his life after 18 months, the least David Bowie’s publicist can have the permission to do is disclose what type of cancer took Bowie’s life!!” wrote one fan, Richard Goldy.
Goldy’s curiosity was not shared by other Bowie fans; his post only netted nine Facebook “likes.”
Days after Bowie’s death, some news outlets reported he’d had liver cancer, based on a single source: his friend, Belgian theater director Ivo van Hove, whose New York production of “Lazarus” featured the singer’s music. According to Reuters, van Hove told Dutch NPO radio: “He told me more than a year and three months ago just after he had heard himself … he said it was liver cancer.”
The purported revelation — never confirmed by Bowie’s family — set off a cycle of news stories around the world.
“David Bowie died of liver cancer, friend and collaborator says,” blared a New York Daily News headline.
When reached by The Washington Post, however, van Hove recognized the sensitivity of his disclosure and tried to backtrack.
“I don’t know if I can go into that. I am not a close friend, and I am not part of the family. I don’t remember saying it. Perhaps I said it,” van Hove said. “What I want to say officially was that it was cancer. I don’t want to comment on liver cancer or brain tumors or whatever. I don’t know.”
Steve Martin, Bowie’s publicist, declined to comment.
Richard Wender, chief cancer-control officer of the American Cancer Society, said that when celebrities open up about their cancers, it can help educate people about getting colonoscopies or tests for hepatitis C.
Paul Goldberg, a District of Columbia resident and novelist who runs a subscription-based Web publication, “The Cancer Letter,” cited Betty Ford’s divulgence in 1974 of her breast-cancer diagnosis, which prompted women across the country to get mammograms.
He also pointed to the more recent outpouring after Beau Biden’s disclosure of his brain cancer, and how President Obama announced at his State of the Union address this month that Vice President Joe Biden was now “in charge of mission control” for “a new moonshot” to cure cancer. The disease exacts a nearly $75 billion toll in medical costs in the U.S.
“After a lot of stagnation, now there’s a lot of money coming to cancer research. Look at what’s going to happen with the ‘moonshot’ program,” Obama said.
If ordinary families note the type of cancer their loved ones had in obituaries, cancer patients can see how long someone lived since their diagnosis and perhaps find where they received treatment, Goldberg added.
“The need for privacy is very personal, and you can’t prescribe what the optimum amount of privacy is on something like this,” he said. “The argument for disclosing is that it makes people more aware of that disease and prompts them to think what can be done.”
When Denise McQuighan, 55, died in March 2014, Thomas McQuighan, a Maryland government contractor, made sure her obituary left out the exact kind of cancer. During her life, she only told two of her girlfriends that she had a combination of multiple myeloma and leukemia. She worried friends would treat her differently and had little interest in hearing anyone else’s well-meaning suggestions for treatments.
“The cause of death was leukemia, but that leukemia came about from other therapies she had,” McQuighan said. “It’s an irrelevant question.”
But when Bowie died, McQuighan had questions: “The news said he had cancer, and I was like, ‘Which one?’ But then I said, ‘Does it really matter?’ If he had the same one my wife did, I’d say, ‘Gee, I wish they had a cure for it.’ ”
Karin Godwin, a retired elementary art schoolteacher who lives in Alexandria, said her husband, Kurt, would have been happy with her decision to leave out his specific cancer in his obituary. He was always self-conscious about his colostomy bag and colon-cancer diagnosis.
But when Bowie died this month, Godwin, like McQuighan, said she instantly wanted to know the truth. Which cancer claimed his life? “I really did wonder,” Godwin said. “I knew so much about Bowie, but they’re not going to tell how he died. It’s like there’s no closure to his life.”