The Underappreciated Power Of Keeping Your Health Battles To Yourself

In the age of social media, where we can document our every move, not sharing pertinent personal information seems almost radical.

Chadwick Boseman, Paul Reubens, Norm MacDonald, Virgil Abloh Ovidiu Hrubaru, Kathy Hutchins and DFree via Shutterstock / Greg2600, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

On Sunday, July 30, 2023, actor and comedian Paul Reubens, who embodied the character of Pee-wee Herman, died at age 70 after a long-term battle with cancer. In a posthumous message on Instagram, Reubens wrote, “Please accept my apology for not going public with what I’ve been facing the last six years. I have always felt a huge amount of love and respect from my friends, fans and supporters. I have loved you all so much and enjoyed making art for you.” 


In keeping his illness private, Reubens joined a number of celebrities whose deaths shocked the greater public. In the age of social media, where we can document our every move, making the decision to not share pertinent personal information seems almost radical. 

There is distinct power to be found in keeping health battles private.

Everyone navigates illness in their own way. There are no definitive rules outlining the right way to be sick or the proper way to die. Some people find strength through absolute transparency, choosing to share their health issues with the world at large. It takes inherent courage to express vulnerability, to publicly declare your struggle, no matter what form that struggle takes.


But there is also courage in keeping quiet, in sharing our suffering only with our closest inner circles. This can be especially true for the relatively small percentage of people on Earth who navigate living as celebrities. 

Reubens is the most recent example of someone in the public eye who chose to keep his cancer private. As his estate noted on Instagram, “Paul bravely and privately fought cancer for years with his trademark tenacity and wit.”

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Only the people closest to Reubens know the reasons why he declined to publicize his illness. The message from his estate concluded that Reubens was “a gifted and prolific talent, he will forever live in the comedy pantheon and in our hearts as a treasured friend and man of remarkable character and generosity of spirit.”

When celebrities keep their health battles private, it allows them to experience a humanity they’re often denied.

Comedian Norm MacDonald’s death is another example of a person with a public presence who chose not to announce his nine-year fight against cancer. After he died at age 61, in September 2021, his producing partner and friend Lori Jo Hoekstra shared the reason why he kept his illness to himself. 

“He was most proud of his comedy,” she said. “He never wanted the diagnosis to affect the way the audience or any of his loved ones saw him.” 

Chadwick Boseman died on August 28, 2020, after fighting a 2016 diagnosis of stage 3 colon cancer. He was 43 years old. Boseman shared his cancer with only his closest inner circle, which ostensibly provided him a sense of security during an uncontrollable and tragic time. As Boseman’s longtime friend and trainer, Addison Henderson, noted in The Hollywood Reporter, “He was just living his artistic life to the fullest and using his time and his moment to really affect people.”


Virgil Abloh, the Men’s Artistic Director of Louis Vuitton, also kept his battle against cancer private. He was diagnosed with cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare and aggressive kind of cancer, in 2019. Abloh died at 41 years old, on November 28, 2021. 

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News of both his illness and death was announced by Abloh’s family on Instagram. In the post, he was remembered as “a fiercely devoted father, husband, son, brother, and friend.”  


“He chose to endure his battle privately since his diagnosis in 2019, undergoing numerous challenging treatments, all while helming several significant institutions that span fashion, art, and culture,” the post continued. “Through it all, his work ethic, infinite curiosity, and optimism never wavered. Virgil was driven by his dedication to his craft and to his mission to open doors for others and create pathways for greater equality in art and design.” 


Anyone who is navigating the devastation of terminal illness deserves to live out their time on Earth in a fulfilling, comforting way.

Whether someone is a public figure or not, there’s no automatic need to share every last part of your life. In deciding to keep an illness private, people are given the opportunity to remain in the collective memory as their most vibrant selves, as people who lived. 

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Alexandra Blogier is a writer on YourTango's news and entertainment team. She covers celebrity gossip, pop culture analysis and all things to do with the entertainment industry.