King Charles breaks royal tradition of ‘mystery’, sharing cancer diagnosis

The king is stepping back from public duties but carrying on state business during his treatment

February 08, 2024 07:31 am | Updated 09:15 am IST - London

Britain’s King Charles III and Queen Camilla leave The London Clinic in central London. File photo

Britain’s King Charles III and Queen Camilla leave The London Clinic in central London. File photo | Photo Credit: AP

In British history, the secrecy of the monarch’s health has always reigned supreme. Buckingham Palace’s disclosure that King Charles III has been diagnosed with cancer shattered that longstanding tradition.

On the heels of the shock and well-wishing that followed the official statement on Monday came the surprise that the palace had announced anything at all. Indeed, the unprecedented missive was sparse on details: King Charles, 75, had begun treatment for a cancer it did not name after being diagnosed during a recent corrective procedure for an enlarged prostate.

Stepping back

The king is stepping back from public duties but carrying on state business during his treatment, which he’ll receive as an outpatient, the palace said.

“The King has cancer,” the Times of London declared in a terse banner headline on Tuesday. It was unlike any other in British history.

Never complain, never explain, as King Charles’ late mother, Queen Elizabeth II, was known to say. King Charles has withheld details of his illness and treatment, and in that way is carrying on her approach. But in beaming a sliver of light from inside the palace walls and his own life, the king has broken with his mother and royal tradition.

The world still does not know the cause of Elizabeth’s death in 2022 at the age of 96. In the final years of her life, the public was told only that the queen was suffering from “mobility issues.” Her death certificate listed the cause simply as “old age.”

Also read: Explained | What will be the powers of Britain’s new monarch, King Charles III? 

The British public was not told that King Charles’ grandfather, King George VI, had lung cancer before his death in February 1952 at the age of 56, and some historians have claimed that the king himself was not told he was terminally ill.

Given that King Charles rules in a media-saturated age, “I do think it’s incumbent on him to reveal more than he has revealed,” said Sally Bedell Smith, author of Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life .

“He was admirably candid in what he said about being treated for an enlarged prostate, and his impulse was to be open and also to encourage men to have the necessary examinations,” she added. “But then he reverted to the traditional royal form, which is mystery, secrecy, opacity.”

‘Hope for awareness’

One reason for disclosing his illness, the palace statement said, was “in the hope it may assist public understanding for all those around the world who are affected by cancer.”

Cancer patient advocates reported glimmers of success on that front, with Cancer Research U.K. reporting a 42% rise in visits to its cancer information page, according to Dr. Julie Sharp, the group’s head of health and patient information.

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