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A Full and Speedy Recovery

A Full and Speedy Recovery

With the recent cancer diagnosis of King Charles, Andrew Graystone looks at how we discuss sickness in public. 20/02/2024

The revelation that a 75 year–old man has cancer is not a happy one. But neither is it a great surprise. Cancer will visit many of us. It has visited me.  

When that man is King Charles, further attention is unavoidable. You can be sure that every communication from Buckingham Palace will be pored over by journalists and commentators. Every word will be analysed and every nuance interpreted. Not surprising, then, that the Palace chose to make its announcement in matter of fact terms. The statement confirmed that the king doesn’t have prostate cancer; but that’s the most they are saying. Understandably, the Royal Family doesn’t want to offer a running commentary about the nature and the stage of his illness.  

Information that has leaked out since the initial announcement tells us almost nothing about the disease itself, but it has told us a fair bit about the monarchy, and also about how we as a society think about illness, and cancer in particular. 

The Palace, and most of the media, have helpfully avoided the trope of cancer as an ‘enemy’, and illness as a ‘battle’. That is language that many people living with cancer find particularly unhelpful. It enlists us into a war we have not chosen, and places a burden on us to fight when we may feel at our weakest. In the case of cancer, it involves waging a sort of civil war against a part of our own body.   

Whenever illness comes to any family, all reasonable people wish that it was not this way. Tell people that you are not well, and you will receive a strange spectrum of responses: from prayers for recovery, to good wishes, to advice (welcome and unwelcome) to a sort of hopeful visualisation that wills for a good result. Even the most kindly–meant greetings can be difficult.  

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wished His Majesty “a full and speedy recovery”, saying “I have no doubt he’ll be back to full strength in no time.” Of course he was trying to express his hope for a good result, and perhaps his spokespersons were struggling to find appropriate words in the face of something as patently undesirable as cancer. But the expectation of a return to wellness places a burden on the sick, and the suggestion that any recovery will be speedy is unrealistic. It can add to the burden. The truth is, many people with cancer do not recover fully, if at all, and many who do take a long time. In every case, including my own, the person who emerges at the end of a journey of illness is different from the person we knew before. That is the nature, and dare I say it, the richness of the experience of illness.  

Illness is a part of every life. In an essay entitled ‘My Uncle Charlie Is Not Much of a Person But He Is Still My Uncle Charlie’, the theologian Stanley Hauerwas urges us see illness not simply as an individual affliction, but as an event in community. The weight of illness is not to be ignored, but nor is it to be borne solely by the person whose body is ailing. St Francis of Assisi spoke of Sister Illness as a family member, a visitor to be entertained. When a sibling comes to stay, it affects the whole family. 

Like most people who are seriously ill, King Charles may need some privacy to deal with what is happening to him physically, mentally and spiritually. The Palace statement said that the King has been “advised by doctors to postpone public–facing duties.” Illness is never a welcome part of life, but nevertheless it is important to make space to receive what it has to offer us. CS Lewis, struggling to reconcile unwanted suffering with a good God, described pain as God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world”; by no means God’s will for us, but still a reminder of our vulnerability and dependency. Not to attend to illness is to risk missing what God is saying to us.  

The Palace statement also said that “Throughout this period, His Majesty will continue to undertake State business and official paperwork as usual.” I hope that is a provisional statement. Those who are unwell often feel the pressure to carry on as normal. The Institute for Public Policy Research has found, astonishingly, that just 9% of men and 16% of women born today can expect to reach the current state retirement age of 67 in good health. We increasingly expect people to carry on working not only through specific periods of ill health, but years more into a whole period of life that would have been retirement in prior generations.  

The urge to carry on doing what a well person does may not be realistic. It can even be a response to unhealthy societal pressure to pretend that nothing is amiss, and that the ‘enemy’ is being overcome. If an uninterrupted work schedule, followed by a return to ‘normality’ is the only thing that feels acceptable, we may miss the deep and important questions that Sister Illness has brought with her.   

This must be particularly challenging for a prominent public figure like King Charles. When anything significant happens in the Royal Family, former royal butler Paul Burrell can be relied upon to say something, whether he is asked to or not. On being asked about King Charles’ cancer, he said “I know the King will recover from this,” though he didn’t give any indication of how he knows this.  

Like Burrell, we sometimes treat members of the Royal Family, and the family itself, as icons of wholeness, or even of holiness. We see them as a kind of pattern of what it is to live well. After all, if we pray and sing and chant ‘God save the King’ as much as we did last year, are we implying that we expect that the King will live a definitively blessed life? Or recognising that the life we have depends in some way on God. But whether you are a King or a commoner, a blessed life may not be one that is free of illness, weakness, disability and doubt.


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Photo by RDNE Stock project:

White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Andrew Graystone

Andrew Graystone

Andrew is the Public Engagement Lead at Theos. He has been a journalist and commentator, a BBC TV producer, and has also written and presented many programmes for BBC radio. He is the author of ‘Bleeding for Jesus’ (DLT, 2021), and ‘Faith Hope and Mischief’ (Canterbury, 2020).

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Posted 20 February 2024

Health, Royal Family


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