Skip to main content

King Charles' cancer diagnosis opens dialogue on public health

King Charles III
By Rebecca Coleman
06 February 2024
current affairs
King Charles III
the royal family

Last night, Buckingham Palace confirmed that the King has been diagnosed with cancer and is beginning treatment. The cancer has been discovered at an early stage, following a routine procedure last month to treat a benign prostate enlargement. 

Details are light, aside from the disease being at an early stage and it subsequently being ruled out as prostate cancer. This will likely remain the case as the King seeks to carry on his constitutional duties. While refraining from public-facing duties on the advice of doctors, the statement confirms that he will continue to carry out State business and official paperwork as usual.

Often, coverage of the Royal Family feels positioned as speculation and entertainment rather than ‘proper news.’ From rumours about troubled marriages, to illnesses, family estrangement and even dealing with personal grief, nothing is off the table and as a result, many important topics can slip under the radar.

Ongoing coverage of the King’s health has felt uncomfortable at times – balancing the fine line between public interest and personal privacy that the Royal Family has always attempted to navigate. Discussing cancer is uncomfortable too, despite it being incredibly common. On average, someone in the UK is diagnosed with cancer at least every 90 seconds, and around 1 in 2 of us will likely develop some form of cancer during our lifetime. Fear and stigma surrounding the disease means that many people can ignore or miss early signs and delay seeking medical advice.

When uncomfortable topics are spoken about openly, that moment can have invaluable impact. Indeed, Prostate Cancer UK has credited the King publicly seeking treatment for benign prostate enlargement as raising vital awareness about the issue. The charity reported a 500% increase in people coming to its website for information and support in the week following the news, with an increase in men taking the charity’s 30-second online risk checker.

Public reaction confirms there is immense value in public figures continuing to bring important (and often, uncomfortable) issues to the fore and sparking difficult conversations. While many counter that coverage of the King’s health will divert concentration away from other important global and domestic news, it is a reminder that many crises can slip into the background and become ‘normal’. It is timely that three days ago, World Cancer Day (February 4), went by without too much attention. 

Currently, half of people having cancer treatment in the UK (49%) are worried about general pressures on the NHS affecting their chances of survival, according to Macmillan Cancer UK. Waiting times are increasing, and despite a multitude of awareness campaigns, many seek medical intervention too late.  Giving cancer charities and medical professionals ‘permission to speak’ on this issue over the coming months will be a powerful moment as we look towards the King making a full recovery.