Kate Middleton Wanted the Same Privacy I Had

As a cancer survivor, I understand why the Princess of Wales tried to protect her diagnosis.

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: @princeandprincessofwales/Instagram
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: @princeandprincessofwales/Instagram

Kate Middleton’s announcement of her cancer diagnosis was a plot twist I didn’t see coming. For the past two months, ever since the word came that she had undergone abdominal surgery and would resume public activities by Easter, her whereabouts and state of mind had been under intense public scrutiny. Wild conspiracy theories sprouted up and multiplied. TMZ published a grainy photo – maybe it was her in the car with William? — and then came the Mother’s Day debacle of a Photoshopped image recalled by news agencies.

All the speculation and hoopla evaporated with the announcement, released on social media on Friday, March 22. There was Catherine, Princess of Wales, pale and wan with cascading dark-brown curls in a striped jumper and jeans, sitting awkwardly on a wooden bench in the gardens of Windsor Castle, revealing her “huge shock” at discovering she had cancer. (Her father-in-law, King Charles, was diagnosed with an unspecified cancer earlier this year.) That the abdominal surgery in mid-January, 13 days in hospital, and recovery at home had given way to an altered reality, one of chemotherapy that began in late February and will continue for an indeterminate period of time.

What emerged in the two-minute, 20-second video message was a woman trying to wrest back the control that had been cruelly wrenched away from her. Looking past the media intensity, the internet gossip, and the public-relations mistakes, I could sense a primal reaction happening. One I’d experienced myself.

Major changes upend one’s life, but a cancer diagnosis turns that shift into an ongoing, full-time endeavor. If only it were as easy as having surgery to excise the tumor away – and yes, sometimes that’s the case. But when you are in your early 40s, as Catherine is, or late 30s, as I was when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, you are involuntarily removed from everyday society and thrust into the alternate universe that is Cancerland.

Every admission to Cancerland is different. No two breast cancers are alike, as I learned when two friends received their diagnoses within the same summer season as me, leading to vastly different plans and outcomes. (One is alive and thriving; the other died in 2020.) Treatments depend on the type and aggressiveness of the tumor — some that require chemotherapy first, some (as in my case) that don’t, and some that require immunotherapies in tandem and that outlast the chemo. Maybe you need six weeks of radiation; maybe you only need two, or none at all. Maybe a pill will take care of things for now. Maybe nothing can work because the diagnosis came too late, leaving weeks or months to live.

The shock of discovery is difficult enough. But the dizzying array of choices one must make about treatment, and fast — If you’re fertile, freeze your eggs or else! Try this experimental drug even if it only adds a few percentage points to the survival rate! — can be too much to process. And that’s as a regular citizen whom the world at large doesn’t care about. Add in any semblance of a public life or celebrity and the choices become even more fraught. Every choice made will be subject to a merciless microscope and picked apart.

Who can you tell, and when? Loved ones and close friends, of course. But how will they react, and will they be there for you when it counts? Who is emotionally equipped to handle your diagnosis and to sit with you during chemo sessions? Who will make it about themselves, rather than support you in your time of trouble? Who will leave, and who will stay?

These were questions I had to contend with during my year-plus of active cancer treatment. But there was the stranger, thornier, more ridiculous and yet more existential question that nipped at my heels: How would I relay this news in a public realm? Did I even want to? Social media, after all, has turned everybody into a PR operative. I could have tweeted something pithy or darkly ironic. I did, in fact, post pictures on my then-private Instagram, but that was the point of keeping it private: Only a select few had access in real time. How to prolong my active sense of privacy so that I could do my work — my then-full-time job, the manuscript for my first book — in uninterrupted peace?

Luckily, I was able to control my own cancer narrative, so that the public could respond to my writing and not the diagnosis itself. I wrote about cancer when I had something concrete to say, about drinking, about hair loss and recovery, and about the way the language of cancer gets in the way of the messier truth. With time, it became part of my history, embedded in my subconscious. As I wrote in 2016, and still believe now: I wait, I write, I live.

The worst of the cancer treatment is well behind me. A daily pill keeps the wolves at bay. I am healthier and more active than I’ve ever been. I am working on my third book and brimming with ideas for the next one. I live with joy and with purpose and with the constant thrum of anxiety that the shoe will, in fact, drop. That once I cease taking this pill, three years from now, a return trip to Cancerland is inevitable and will be worse than the first time.

But cancer is a wily beast, ready to strike on its own schedule, shattering the illusion of recovery and control. Is it any wonder, then, that Catherine wanted to hold on to it, not just for herself but for her family, particularly her three children, to give them a chance to navigate this unasked-for, indeterminate sojourn to an entirely different kingdom?

Kate Middleton told the world about cancer because she felt she had to appease the public, salivating to fill the void of silence and the subsequent PR information bungling. It’s a far cry from Olivia Munn, who earlier this month revealed her own cancer diagnosis, surgery, and treatment almost a year after it had begun, away from the prying eyes and braying needs of the internet. She had controlled her narrative and, for now, had won.

Even if such victories are illusory, there is a gift in being able to shape the story. Cancer isn’t a battle but something to treat. Stigma and shame ought to fall away. The rules, however, are different for the Princess of Wales, her every move micromanaged, her absence magnified to unearthly proportions. Control may be out of reach, but it’s still worth striving for.

Kate Middleton Wanted the Same Privacy I Had