Oliver Sacks’ brave disclosure about his terminal cancer in the New York Times: “My Own Life: Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer,” on February 19th, brings to mind another choice of dealing with an illness which we encountered here in Israel just the other day.
Earlier this year we found out that one of our ministers, Uri Orbach, a relatively young man, was gravely ill. On February 16th, 2015 at the age of 54 he died. After his passing, still, there was no mention of the exact nature of his disease. Wikipedia in Hebrew specifically states that in 2012 Orbach was diagnosed as having hematological disease.
Whether it is a private or a public figure, the decision to share with others the details of an illness, is personal. But having lost my husband to cancer at the age of 55 I feel that it could be very beneficial to talk openly about the disease. In our case, my husband, upon discovering that he had stage 4 lung cancer, chose to be frank and derived strength from the good wishes of all those who loved him.
However, since my husband was a private person, his battle with cancer did not bring about more awareness to the fact that lung cancer is usually detected too late because there are no early symptoms. Sadly his death did not result in changes of policies regarding allocation of medications or participation in clinical trials either.
I understand that some people in powerful positions do not wish to disclose the fact that they are ill since they fear losing their clout and authority. Moreover, some business executives know that illness negatively affects the value of their company.
But when a public figure sees it as his/her responsibility to share the details of the illness with the community, it could bring about real change. I don’t know whether our minister died of cancer, but if he did many people in the community could have benefited from discussions of that particular type of disease on the media. And if it was a different, perhaps a rare hematological disease, then disclosure could have drawn attention to the research done in that field and to the funds allocated to find cure.
Besides, it is a significant opportunity for people who suffer from that particular disease, and their families, to have a voice. A good example is the Israeli industrialist and philanthropist Dov Lautman whose brave, and long, battle with ALS became an inspiration to all of us.
While some people prefer to keep their illness secret, death is public and so is a person’s legacy. Uri Orbach chose to let his followers know that he was ill and asked for their prayers and good wishes, but that was all.
Before Uri Orbach became a politician he had been an author, journalist and a radio personality. His listeners would cherish his sense of humor and his quick wit. His readers, especially children, would remember his beautiful stories which were especially relevant to their life and reality.
It is sad that a man of words chose reticence when it came to his own disease.
P.S Private people could also make a difference in promoting the awareness to certain rare diseases