Tags: Alzheimer's/Dementia | Cancer | Gene | Wilder | Cancer | Advocate | Alzheimers

Why Did Cancer Advocate Gene Wilder Keep Alzheimer's Private?

Why Did Cancer Advocate Gene Wilder Keep Alzheimer's Private?

(Copyright AP)

By    |   Tuesday, 30 August 2016 10:18 AM

Beloved actor Gene Wilder, who campaigned for decades to spread awareness of cancer, died Monday, after keeping his Alzheimer’s diagnosis secret for three years.

According to Wilder’s family, he made the decision for fear of disappointing his fans.

"The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity," said his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman, in a statement, "but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him 'there's Willy Wonka' would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion.

"He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world."

While the decision to go public with such a diagnosis is a personal one, for any family, Wilder’s choice may reflect the stigma of Alzheimer’s and other mental illnesses, experts say.

Public figures and celebrities diagnosed with cancer, heart, disease or other life-threatening conditions are often heralded as heroic figures locked in a battle for the fight of their lives.

By contrast, those with Alzheimer's and mental health issues are rarely cast in such positive terms in media reports.

While that stigma is fading, this is not necessarily true for those in public life who suffer from the memory-robbing disorder, says Dr. Marc Leavey.

Although other celebrities have disclosed their diagnosis before they died, including President Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston, and Charles Bronson, many – like Wilder – prefer the public not know, notes Leavey, an internist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

"The public is getting to be more educated in terms of dementia, and it isn’t whispered about as it was once," Leavey adds.

"But people are people, and, many celebrities know that, as they age, they lose their spark, their luster, and they prefer that people remember them not as they are now, but as they once were."

For most of his life, Wilder was outspoken about the impact of cancer on him and his late wife, Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer.

A decade after her death, in 1999, Wilder was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. He was treated and the cancer went into remission.

But in 2005, he relapsed and was told by his doctor that a stem cell transplant was his only hope of beating the disease. He underwent the procedure, which was successful, and he gave interviews discussing it, including a conversation with Larry King on CNN in 2002.

He explained that the stem cells were taken from his blood and prepared, after which he underwent chemotherapy. Then the stem cells were transfused back into his body.

"They sing happy birthday, and they inject these new stem cells into your blood stream again," he told King.

"And you’re miserable for about 10 days. And I'm one of the lucky guys. They said you're the poster boy because everything took. What I'm saying is you can't guarantee. In my case, it did work."

But Wilder is most remembered for his pleas for more awareness – and better diagnostic procedures – of ovarian cancer.

He and Radner had only been married just a few years when she was diagnosed with an advanced form of the disease. Although she was treated, she died shortly after.

Following Radner's death, Wilder spearheaded a campaign for better diagnosis.

He testified before a congressional subcommittee in May, and recounted the tragedy of her many misdiagnoses, eventual discovery of her cancer, painful treatments and death.

In doing so, he succeeded in getting $30 million in federal money allocated for research.

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Gene Wilder was a cancer advocate for years, but when it came to his Alzheimer's diagnosis he chose to keep it a secret. Experts say that such a choice is entirely personal and should be respected, but it reflects the stigma still associated with Alzheimer's and other mental health disorders.
Gene, Wilder, Cancer, Advocate, Alzheimers, Actor
Tuesday, 30 August 2016 10:18 AM
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