When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine, Dr. Barron H. Lerner explores how celebrity patients have influenced public attitudes toward diseases and their treatments by analyzing 12 case studies between 1938 and 1992 (see below). Dr. Lerner describes how celebrity cases can educate the public, create advocates for research and patient care on behalf of other people with the same disease, and have even influenced aspects of doctors’ professional training.
Dr. Lerner points out that sick celebrities are important to other sick people, in part, because we assume that celebrities have access to the best medical advice and care and other sick people would like to have the same opportunities. For instance, Lance Armstrong says that people wrote to him asking about everything he did and ate while fighting testicular cancer. Another example is that of actor Steve McQueen. During his battle with mesothelioma in the 1980s, there was a belief that he had extended his life by obtaining treatment not available in the U.S. — an early example of medical tourism. Following this news, thousands of cancer patients traveled to Mexico in search of similar treatments. A more recent example of this is the sad case of Farrah Fawcett who traveled repeatedly to a German cancer clinic to obtain unconventional treatments not available in the U.S. Beyond wanting to have the same treatments that famous patients have, we also look to celebrities for hope and inspiration as we fight disease.
|Case Study||Year||Disease or Condition|
|Lou Gehrig||1938||ALS – Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis|
|Jimmy Piersall||1952||Manic depression/Bipolar Disorder|
|Margaret Bourke-White||1959-1963||Parkinson’s Disease|
|John Foster Dulles||1956||Colon Cancer|
|Brian Piccolo||1969||Embryonal Cell Carcinoma*|
|Morris Abram||1973||AML – Acute Myeloid Leukemia|
|Rita Hayworth||1981||Alzheimer’s Disease|
|Barney Clark||1982-1983||Artificial Heart|
|Libby Zion||1984||Medical errors|
|Elizabeth Glaser, Arthur Ashe||1985, 1988
|Lorenzo Odone||1984-1992||ALD – Adrenoleukodystrophy|
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