How King Charles III broke centuries of royal tradition by disclosing his cancer diagnosis

How King Charles III broke centuries of royal tradition by disclosing his cancer diagnosis

Monday’s revelation that King Charles III has cancer has shattered a long tradition of secrecy surrounding the health of every British monarch.

There has been a longstanding tradition in British history of secrecy surrounding the monarch’s health.

It’s one of the reasons why Buckingham Palace’s announcement that King Charles III has been diagnosed with cancer on Monday was met with such shock.

The unprecedented missive was sparse on details: Charles, 75, had begun treatment for a cancer it did not name after being diagnosed during a recent corrective procedure for an enlarged prostate. 

The King is stepping back from public duties but carrying on state business during his treatment, which he’ll receive as an outpatient, the palace added.

Never complain, never explain, as Charles’ late mother, Queen Elizabeth II, was known to say.

While Charles has withheld details of his illness and treatment, and in that way is carrying on her approach, he has also broken with his mother and royal tradition.

There is a lot we still don’t know

The world still does not know the cause of Elizabeth’s death in 2022 at the age of 96. 

In the final years of her life, the public was told only that the queen was suffering from “mobility issues.” Her death certificate listed the cause simply as “old age.”

The British public wasn’t told that Charles’ grandfather, King George VI, had lung cancer before his death in February 1952 at the age of 56. Some historians even claimed that the King himself wasn’t told he was terminally ill.

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Given that Charles rules in a media-saturated age, “I do think it’s incumbent on him to reveal more than he’s revealed,” said Sally Bedell Smith, author of the 2017 book ‘Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life’.

“He was admirably candid in what he said about being treated for an enlarged prostate, and his impulse was to be open and also to encourage men to have the necessary examinations,” she added. “But then he reverted to the traditional royal form, which is mystery, secrecy, opacity.”

On Tuesday, former royal press secretary Simon Lewis told BBC Radio 4 that Charles’ openness about his cancer diagnosis has been his style as a monarch.

“I think 20 years ago we would have got a very abrupt, short statement, and that’s about it,” he said. 

The palace statement goes as far as possible, “given that the King has had a diagnosis of cancer and, as a lot of people know, processing that is a pretty tough process”.

One reason for disclosing his illness, the palace statement said, was “in the hope it may assist public understanding for all those around the world who are affected by cancer”.

Cancer patient advocates reported glimmers of success on that front, with Cancer Research UK reporting a 42 per cent rise in visits to its cancer information page, according to Dr Julie Sharp, the group’s head of health and patient information.

The jump “reflects that high-profile cancer cases often act as a prompt to encourage people to find out more or think about their own health,” she said.

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But there was another pragmatic reason: to keep control of the information in the age of lightning-fast social media and misinformation. The palace statement said Charles “has chosen to share his diagnosis to prevent speculation”.

How much are the British entitled to know?

Whether the monarch owes the world more information about his health is a tense subject.

Royals are private citizens but also, in a sense, part of the public trust given that they are subsidized by British taxpayers and play an important – though largely powerless – constitutional role. Unelected, they inherit their wealth under a 1,000-year-old monarchy that Republican activists have long tried to dislodge.

Although some polls show the public is friendly toward Charles, opposition and apathy to the monarchy are both growing. 

In a recent study by the National Centre for Social Research, just 29 per cent of respondents thought the monarchy was “very important” – the lowest level in the centre’s 40 years of research on the subject. Opposition was highest among the young.

Remaining relevant is part of what makes Charles’ legacy and succession so urgent. Maintaining at least the appearance of vitality can be key to leaders’ quest for and retention of power.

The King, the palace was careful to note, would step away from public-facing duties during his treatment but continue to manage other state duties.

In Charles’ case, succession has long been set. Next in line is his son, William, the Prince of Wales. 

But the King’s illness makes William’s preparation more critical at a time when he’s also caring for his wife, Kate, Princess of Wales, who is recovering from abdominal surgery.

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Charles’ news was received with great sympathy in a country in which 3 million people live with cancer, according to Macmillan Cancer Support, a London-based charity. 

On average, the organisation says, one person is diagnosed with cancer in the UK every 90 seconds. That’s about 1,000 new cancer cases detected every day, according to the National Health Service.

That the King has joined those ranks – and, critically for a British monarch, shared that vulnerability with the world – heralded for some a new era of transparency in an era of misinformation.


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