DR MARTIN SCURR: Why Kate’s cancer diagnosis is especially devastating – and how three words in her statement will make a difference

Sometimes the health problems that afflict us can be down simply to bad luck.

Clearly we can — and should — do everything we can to minimise the risk of ill health: eat a balanced diet, take exercise; get enough sleep; and all the other ‘right things’, according to what the medics tell us. No one wants to get ill, after all.

But that’s not necessarily going to be rewarded by good health. I am, of course, thinking of both the Princess of Wales, and the King.

Let me stress that none of us should be speculating about the nature of her cancer, nor that of the King’s. There is a famous principle in psychiatry known as the Goldwater rule, which states that psychiatrists should not ‘diagnose’ public figures. The same is true for medical doctors, and that includes trying to guess the nature of an undisclosed illness.

But I feel I can say that the recent news, that tests after her surgery revealed the presence of cancerous tissue, is deeply shocking — and most of all, naturally, to the Princess and her family.

Tests after Kate's abdominal surgery in January found the presence of cancerous tissue and the Princess of Wales is now under going  preventative chemotherapy
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Tests after Kate’s abdominal surgery in January found the presence of cancerous tissue and the Princess of Wales is now under going  preventative chemotherapy

These kinds of diagnosis are a bolt out of the blue for anyone, but perhaps arguably even more so for someone who has a healthy lifestyle and who appears to have always done all that they can to remain in good health, and who is also so young.

We’ve all read stories of centenarians who attribute their long life to a regular tipple or claim to have smoked since adolescence – but we all know these are the exceptions, rather than the rule: looking after yourself is important. However, it is not a guarantee.

Clearly the Princess of Wales had symptoms that lead to her surgery: and the findings, detected post operatively on the basis of laboratory analysis, have revealed some malignancy. As I’ve seen on so many occasions, the time a patient spends waiting for results is a time of great anxiety, buoyed up by hope: life seems put on hold.

Why does it take so long to get the results? It is because lab studies can be complex, and often a number of experts are involved, multi-disciplinary team discussions are held — all very necessary to ensure accuracy in presenting what will be life-changing information to the patient and their family.

Along with dealing with the anxiety and fear of the diagnosis itself, there is also the anxiety and fear of coming to terms with life not as you’d planned. Suddenly the automatic assumption that one will have many long and healthy years ahead is eroded.

King Charles has also been diagnosed with a form of cancer after it was discovered during treatment he was receiving for an enlarged prostrate


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King Charles has also been diagnosed with a form of cancer after it was discovered during treatment he was receiving for an enlarged prostrate

And a cancer diagnosis is something more and more of us are going to have to face. As a medical student 50 years ago I was taught that one person in five of us will develop cancer in some shape or form at some stage.

Now as many as one in two will get some form of this disease, according to the NHS — and while we tend to think of cancer as a disease of older age, younger people are increasingly developing it (and although diet, lifestyle and environmental factors are being linked to this, it’s really not at all clear what’s going on).

Set against this worry, however, are the outstanding changes in cancer treatment with highly sophisticated radiotherapy to target solid tumours, highly effective chemotherapy and, in more recent times, the stunning advances of immunotherapy, harnessing our own immune systems to eradicate cancer cells.

So there is much positive news to cheer.

But if taking care of yourself isn’t a guarantee for preventing cancer, I believe it’s important to try to encourage anyone diagnosed with the disease to make lifestyle changes that enable them to enhance their own immune responses, and minimise any side-effects of treatment.

This means trying to exercise, even something as simple as a gentle walk if that’s all you can manage — research increasingly shows that exercise can reduce the risk of recurrence, and the side-effects of chemotherapy such as nausea. Eating well and trying to get enough rest and sleep will also help.

Another cornerstone we should not forget is emotional support — a serious diagnosis can be life-changing and, in my view, seeing a counsellor can be very helpful in coming to terms with what it means for your life now. Or you might prefer to talk to family and friends.

Whatever your choice, the important thing to know is that you’re not alone — the very words the Princess of Wales herself used in her broadcast.

As she has faced her own serious diagnosis, she has shown fortitude and resilience beyond measure and the example she has set — at a time when she has had to cope for weeks with the burden and fear of her diagnosis along with the trauma of starting and enduring chemotherapy — will be therapeutic to many who are going through similar experiences. What she has achieved is incalculable.

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