Celebrities endorse and fans emulate. From fashion to diet and lifestyle, the words of those in the glamorous screen or runways seem to define the way we ‘should’ live. After all, we idolise them – they are our heroes and heroines – and people all over need validation.

But, does this unquestionable loyalty extend to personal health issues? This next question inevitably pops up: When celebrities speak – do people really listen?

For the ordinary men and women who see their idols as invincible – prescriptions become more palatable when they see their immortalised heroes, too, being stricken with mortal diseases.

Undeniably, disease knows no colour, creed or status. This is especially comforting when those with great influence open up their personal health struggles on media portals. People feel connected almost instantly to these public figures who, too, must walk through the diseased dungeon.

Annie Perkins, who is diagnosed with Lyme Disease, wrote in her blog: “People in the media and in Hollywood help us to relate and we all can see bits and pieces of ourselves in their own lives. When they share with the world that they are going through trying times – just like us – it is empowering and validating to see.”

After her diagnosis, she found out that Yolanda Hadid also had the disease. “I often wonder if celebrities know of the significant impact they play on other people’s lives. I wonder if they know just how much sharing their story means.”

Fame focus: Public figures shed light on chronic diseases

Lady Gaga details her condition in the Netflix documentary “Gaga: Five Foot Two”. Photo credit: Netflix/The Guardian
Lady Gaga details her condition in the Netflix documentary “Gaga: Five Foot Two”. Photo credit: Netflix/The Guardian

Today, the digitised lifestyle has prompted celebrities to raise awareness for health issues. Their disclosures on personal health issues have lent greater credibility to the disease, as well as saved lives and encouraged early testing. Some have even rallied for funds to spur research.

For instance, fibromyalgia patients often suffer in silence. But, when Lady Gaga shared her personal struggle with fibromyalgia, many fans responded well by tweeting their own stories.

The “Born this way” singer was hospitalised for severe pain and had to call off her performance at the “Rock in Rio” music festival in Brazil. Sharing that the pain could be downright excruciating, Lady Gaga tweeted, “I was taken to the hospital. It’s not simply hip pain or wear & tear from tour, I'm in severe pain. I'm in good hands with the very best doctors.”

Similarly, chronic inflammatory disease lupus gets into the spotlight the moment singer Selena Gomez revealed that she received a kidney transplant because of the disease, which Toni Braxton and Michael Jackson also suffered from.

Selena Gomez shared her recent kidney transplant because of Lupus, a predominantly women’s health issue. Photo credit: Selena Gomez/Twitter/Vogue
Selena Gomez shared her recent kidney transplant because of Lupus, a predominantly women’s health issue. Photo credit: Selena Gomez/Twitter/Vogue

The 25-year-old singer wrote that while the long-term chronic disease, which can remain quiet or dormant for months before a sudden flare-up, is often misunderstood. Organisations like the Lupus Research Alliance are working towards a cure.

Dr Janos Peti-Peterdi, a kidney expert and professor of physiology and biophysics at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, said, “[The body] thinks certain cell types are foreign and triggers a reaction.” He added that for the lucky few, like Gomez, lupus can become milder or even inactive after a transplant.

He said researchers are working to identify patterns in the disease and hopes to silence the condition on the kidneys.

For now, as Gomez continues to share her journey beating Lupus – more women will keep looking up to her as their mentor, and soldier on.

Kim K shares about her skin outbreaks

Psoriasis outbreaks can be disturbing, and many prefer to speak of it in hushed tones.

However, Kim Kardashian West is vocal about her illness, and has documented her battle on her reality TV show "Keeping Up With The Kardashians.” She has posted photos of her outbreaks on social media.

“I don't even really try to cover it that much anymore," she wrote on her app KimKardashianWest.com. “Sometimes I just feel like it's my big flaw and everyone knows about it, so why cover it?”

Another famous star, Cyndi Lauper, too, has teamed up with The National Psoriasis Foundation to speak about her physical, emotional, and social struggles with the skin condition.

"I'm not talking about it because I feel sorry for myself. I'm talking about it because no one talks about it. I didn't understand until I met people from The National Psoriasis Foundation and they brought two other people who had suffered their whole life with it,” said Lauper, singer of the “Girls just want to have fun” hit.

Public revelations opened up conversations on health issues

David Goldstein, associate professor of clinical medicine, and co-director, USC Pacific Centre for Health Policy and Ethics, Keck School of Medicine at USC, said, “"While it is at times difficult to understand the motivation of celebrities revealing extremely personal information, such as medical diagnoses, the by-products of such revelations can be beneficial to the public in several ways.”

As echoed by Dr Goldstein, firstly, stigmas associated with illness, in general, and in some specific situations – such as with epilepsy, mental illness, addiction, and HIV – may be lessened or even eliminated when celebrities "come out" with their own pronouncements.

“Second, public disclosures by celebrities may lead individuals to seek advice and counsel from their own physicians. Third, public understanding coupled with the influence of celebrities may sway policy makers to revisit issues formerly given low priority."

Benefits of disease spotlights are echoed by Dr Harold J. Burstein, associate professor at Harvard Medical School, who felt that tremendous media attention and discussion opened the doors to conversation and allowed people to think about a disease in a way they really might not have otherwise. This is very valuable, he said, from the point of view of public health.

"I think you can look back and certainly see many celebrity disclosures about their health that have really transformed how many people have thought about disease. Ronald Reagan's letter about Alzheimer's disease; Angelina Jolie's statements and disclosures about hereditary breast and ovarian cancer; Katie Couric undergoing a colonoscopy. These were all rather landmark moments that really brought to the fore some of the more common illnesses, but in a way that I think really enabled a conversation that really hadn't taken place before.”

Kim Kardashian shares that her skin care routine is especially difficult given her psoriasis condition. Photo credit: Look Magazine
Kim Kardashian shares that her skin care routine is especially difficult given her psoriasis condition. Photo credit: Look Magazine

Still, health experts caution on medically unproven therapies endorsed by celebrities

Celebrities have often not only vocalised their health conditions; but also advocated unconventional therapies or treatment approaches – and this could be a risk.

Dr Burstein said, "I think that whenever you go public and talk about your own cancer experience or your own interpretation of your treatments, you invite the possibility that people might not agree with you.”

He felt it is not a good idea to be spreading disinformation or misinformation whether you are a celebrity or not.

“But I don't think that's unique to celebrities – I suppose they get a somewhat larger bully pulpit that people might pay attention to them, but for the most part, my sense is they get really quickly marginalized if they're really not speaking to the genuine needs of real people."

According to Dr Goldstein, celebrities may opine on the causes of their maladies or report on treatments that they believe have been or will be successful.

“Unfortunately, the science of medicine and the evidence underlying proven methodology has become so sophisticated that celebrities may unintentionally lead the public astray. If such misunderstanding leads prospective patients to forego seeking quality medical care, unintended delays in diagnosis or reliance on unproven therapies may occur."

Dr Shicha Kumar, interim chief of Breast Surgery, Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, advised physicians to be prepared to discuss the multitudes of questions that come from media figures’ stories, and to dispel myths.

“The main thing is that a celebrity going public starts the discussion, hopefully influencing others to seek information about their own health. Responsibility to seek out accurate information rests both with the patient and the healthcare team. It is important to remember that an individual's treatment or treatment options can vary for a lot of reasons.”

“Everything we do has risks as well benefits – healthcare should be individually tailored, so while a celebrity may tout his/her treatment, the patient and healthcare team should find the treatment best for every individual. At the very least, it starts a dialogue."

Evidently, it is this dialogue that has merged public spaces with the intimate and personal. For Perkins who is battling her own disease, it definitely offers consolation that she is not alone in her journey.

“The more awareness we bring toward what we live with each day, the more others will understand. The more we share, the more we learn. The more we learn that others have struggles too, the more we realise we are all human and we do not have to go through anything alone.” MIMS

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