When I was a twelve-year-old girl, I was introduced to the brutality of the C-word, and how it shows no mercy to those who fall under its ferocious spell when the mother of my childhood friend suddenly died from pancreatic cancer.
After that, there was a long period of early adulthood that spared me the fascination with a disease that both fascinated and horrified, but that all changed when I got caught up in the Cancerfest of 2009.
It began with British reality TV star Jade Goody, a twenty-seven-year-old mother of two adorable boys, who turned her chaotic childhood into the launching pad for a career in a clogged genre, that was in the beginning stages of evolving into what it has become.
I found her on PerezHilton, which sounds so dated, but back then he was the main source for celebrity gossip. And what I discovered wasn’t the typical fare of salaciousness.
This young woman was truthfully living out her nightmare of terminal cervical cancer, for all to see, and her ability to navigate the challenges of dying a public death while providing captivating storylines — depicting how she was navigating her last days — was essentially the kind of entertainment I hadn’t anticipated.
YouTube became my daily destination for all things pertaining to the cancer-ridden young woman, who got her unfortunate diagnosis while appearing on Big Brother India, and immediately flew back to London, to face the harrowing road ahead.
The months after were a rollercoaster of events, as her grueling treatments seemed to work at first, and then it quickly became apparent that she wasn’t going to defeat the rapidly growing tumors in her groin. The only thing to do was to continue documenting her fading presence, as she arranged a glitzy wedding extravaganza to her off again/on again boyfriend — Jack.
My fixation on Jade Goody through the lenses of her reality show was the obsession that grew with the fact that despite her grim prognosis, she was still driven to live out the weeks she had left with the joy of family and friends.
The prying lenses of cameras that tracked every move she made was admissible because of the big pay day that she was stashing away for her boys.
In the end, she chose to depart this world without the intrusive gawking from viewers like me, who were sickeningly wondering if she would bring us along for those final moments.
Her mother was more than willing to provide the private details of her passing to the gossip mags, and even on the day of her televised funeral, the dramatic arrangements validated the status of a young local, who became an A-lister when she chose to die out loud.
After Jade Goody, my antlers went up. I was completely wedded to the process of tracking the terminal phase of celebrity cancer patients, who had to deal with interference from the public.
That’s how I found Patrick Swayze, and his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, which he and his wife publicly shared with Oprah. Months later, he became a hallow shell of his formerly gorgeous frame. I remember the images of him smoking a cigarette at a gas station while he waited for his younger brother, and the defiance of not giving a damn about inhaling toxins when you’re already bursting with them was stunning.
There were more pictorials of doctor visits, including the last one of him in a wheelchair, as he exited the hospital for the last time. There was a stoic surrender that was memorable, and when his wife confirmed that he valiantly fought until the very end, it wasn’t hard to imagine the guts and glory that she tearfully witnessed.
Another celebrity died from cancer that same year — Farrah Fawcett. Her scorching encounter with anal cancer was documented in a reality series — Farrah’s Story. The Former Charlie’s Angel, who is best remembered for that iconic photo, donning the red swimsuit with a big smile and the “hair” that still inspires, was privately and publicly fighting for her life.
Again, it was fascinating to watch a celebrity with everything to live for, admit the fear of facing something she had no control over. Her trips abroad for alternative treatments served as the reminder of how the privileged are able extend their lives with experimental options, while regular folks like me, would be regulated to whatever we can barely afford.
Despite her best efforts, Fawcett passed away the same day that Michael Jackson was found dead. Nobody paid much attention to her death announcement because the King of Pop was all we could talk about, and the circus around that was even more disheartening.
That was pretty much it for 2009.
In the beginning 2010, I recall surfing the internet during lunch break at work, and stumbling on the death announcement of Survivor alum, Jenn Lyon. Her name rang a bell, and the photo of her on the island while filming the show bursted with youthful vitality. It was hard to imagine that she was no longer alive and so I quickly searched for answers.
It was late-stage breast cancer, and sadly, she didn’t think the lump she found right after taping Survivor was anything to be alarmed about. And since she was relatively young and didn’t have health insurance, the need to get it checked out wasn’t nagging.
When she did eventually have it examined, the first thought was that it was tissue from her breast implants, but then further probing unearthed the worst news.
Unlike the others, there were no graphic photos that depicted how the disease had ravaged her. She wasn’t a celebrity of that calibre, and thankfully so. It made her case even more poignant because I was able to imagine myself in her shoes, considering she was merely a year-and-a-half older than me.
At the age of thirty-seven, she left the world with family around her, and I wondered if she had made peace with the fact that she had waited too long to save her life. It caused me to reflect on how careless I was being with my own health, and a couple of days later — I decided to take advantage of the coverage I had by booking an appointment for a paps smear.
My cervix was a bit bruised, but the culture luckily came back without any notable signs of inconsistencies.
My weird obsession with celebrities that are dying from one of the scariest diseases of our time remained the constant, although life took over and occupied me with love affairs, job relocations, and the harshness of aging.
I remembered Jenn Lyon, when I turned forty, and gifted myself with the first ever mammogram. The testing part wasn’t that bad, and I wasn’t nervous about the results because for some reason, I was pretty sure that wouldn’t be the cancer to afflict me.
I’ve always considered myself a worthier candidate for ovarian, cervical, stomach or colon.
The next episode of my celebrity cancer study was unexpected and brutally tragic. It happened to be one of the earliest “influencers” who really embodied the meaning of that word with every fiber of her fabulosity.
Daisy Lewellyn was the most vibrant of the cast members, starring on Bravo’s short-lived reality show, Blood, Sweat & Heels. A couple of years before, I was privy to her move from LA to NYC, and almost attended the glitzy reception that welcomed her back. She was an absolute workhorse, and one can only imagine how high she would’ve flown if she hadn’t been fallen by the cruel reality of one of the rarest form of cancer that ever was.
Her illness happened at the end of the first season of the show, and it took centerstage throughout the second entry. When Daisy introduced her bout with bile duct cancer, she did it with the same graceful enthusiasm for life that made it impossible to imagine her not defeating the war waging in her cells.
Her makeup artist was the one who noticed how the white of her eyes had turned bright green. That was the alarming symptom that caused her to get a mandatory check up. Unfortunately by then, the disease had spread considerably, making her stage-three diagnosis less-than encouraging.
But Daisy never fooled herself into believing that she had the upper hand.
She spent the entire season earnestly illustrating how being seriously sick infects every aspect of your life. The ambitious schedule as an in-demand style maven, with regular appearances on morning shows used to be an effortless juggle, but when you can barely get to the top of the stairs without losing all your breath — that’s when the direness of the situation hits you.
The season didn’t end with good news for Daisy, as her doctor cautiously explained her recent blood results. But aside from losing her hair to chemo, which wasn’t apparent until she made the confession by taking her wig off, it wasn’t physically obvious that she was possibly dying from cancer.
Her delightful disposition never wavered, and even when she broke the news to cast mates, her spirited delivery helped to diffuse the weightiness of her status. That’s why the confirmation of her passing in early 2016 at the age of thirty-six, was so hard to take.
I scoured the web for anything that I missed in the period after she taped the final season, and the only thing that pulled up was a Tweet, that showed her and her dad attending a basketball game not long after she died. She looked like her normal happy self, with the biggest smile she could muster. The only indication of her cancer battle was the weight loss, and darkened pigmentation.
Almost a year later, I downloaded the episodes from the final season of Blood, Sweat, & Heels, and I was blown away by what I uncovered. It was more affecting to watch Daisy with the knowledge that she didn’t survive her illness because of how beautifully she handled the unimaginable without hiding from the gloomy forecast.
That’s when I understood that the terminally-ill aren’t brave at all.
They are scared as shit about what they’ve been assigned without consent, but as long as they’re still here and breathing, the only thing to do is to live out those days with the hope for tomorrow — until the ability to do so disappears.
Former Top Chef contestant Fatima Ali, was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer at the prime of her life. She was just about to turn thirty, and was hoping to maximize her exposure on a top-rated cooking show to the fullest, but her throbbing shoulder pain turned out to be the deal breaker.
I'm a Chef With Terminal Cancer. This Is What I'm Doing with the Time I Have Left
Fatima Ali is a chef in NYC and a former 'Top Chef' contestant. Last year, she was diagnosed with Ewings Sarcoma, a…
She recently succumbed to the disease, and while her loss is terribly sad, what’s truly amazing is how she was able to passionately utilize her words through action, to poetically express what she was feeling about her impending demise, and why the precious time she had left was the gift of her lifetime.
Her last act of generosity reminded me of how much stock we put into “living forever” when it’s really how we lived that matters the most.
I’m also convinced that my obsession with celebrities dying of cancer was really borne out of the curiosity of how they are able to publicly cope with their affairs, despite the heavy burden of knowing that time is running out. They know how they will die, and have a general idea of when it will happen, but as they fade under the duress of a failing template — somehow the spirit stays untouched.
The disconnect between body and soul commences before your breath finally leaves you, and that process is hard to ignore, whether it’s willingly shared or invasively secured.
I often wonder if my fixation is the in-depth preparation for my own personal battle — although I hope not.
Either way — we live and we die. And dying by cancer is the voyeuristic wonder of them all.