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Princess Kate's cancer triggers public shock, sympathy — and shame on the tabloids

Catherine, The Princess of Wales announced her cancer diagnosis on Friday.
Leon Neal
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Getty Images
Catherine, The Princess of Wales announced her cancer diagnosis on Friday.

LONDON — The initial reaction was shock, then concern — soon followed by shame.

When the Princess of Wales announced late Friday, in a video released by Kensington Palace, that she is undergoing "preventative chemotherapy" for an unspecified form of cancer, it triggered sympathy but also some soul-searching about how her fans, followers and the global media may have all failed her.

Catherine hadn't made a public appearance since Christmas. Rumors swirled, and headlines blared: Where is Kate? Why was that Mother's Day picture Photoshopped? What was the palace hiding?

Comedian Stephen Colbert speculated on TV about whether Kate's husband Prince William was having an affair. Practically everyone with a cell phone was scrambling to film video of her at a farm shop, or in the car with her mom — to sell for upwards of $250,000.

Flowers and a letter to the Princess of Wales were left outside Windsor Castle on Saturday.
Alberto Pezzali / AP
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AP
Flowers and a letter to the Princess of Wales were left outside Windsor Castle on Saturday.

It turns out, while the public worked itself up into a frenzy, the princess was privately going through something very serious: cancer.

"I Hope You All Feel Terrible Now," a magazine headline now reads.

"I hope all the press do feel guilty, because God help her! It's just really sad," says Sheena Best, 35, at London's Victoria Station. "She's been hounded in the press. It's really heartbreaking."

On video, Kate describes why she's been out of the spotlight

In her video statement, Kate said she needed time to explain her diagnosis to her children. Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis are aged 10, 8 and 5 respectively.

"This of course came as a huge shock, and William and I have been doing everything we can to process and manage this privately for the sake of our young family," the princess says, looking steely, with a slight smile.

She's dressed casually in a striped jersey, sitting on a garden bench with yellow flowers behind her, with her loosely curled hair cascading over her shoulders.

"We hope that you will understand that, as a family, we now need some time, space and privacy while I complete my treatment," Kate says, staring directly into the camera.

The palace says the video was secretly filmed March 20 by BBC Studios in Windsor, where Kate and William live.

What we know — and don't know — about Kate's diagnosis

The princess was hospitalized for 13 days in January, for abdominal surgery. The palace guidance then was that her condition was not cancerous. But Kate revealed Friday that post-operative tests confirmed cancer had been present.

"My medical team therefore advised that I should undergo a course of preventative chemotherapy and I am now in the early stages of that treatment," she said.

A palace spokesperson says her treatment began in late February.

That's right around the time William abruptly canceled, at the last minute, a planned appearance at his godfather's memorial service. The prince had been scheduled to give a reading.

But his last-minute change of plans fueled tabloid speculation about Kate's mental and physical health and about their marriage.

"I think the media, when it comes to celebrity culture, treat people like they're not humans. It's really awful," says Hermione Berendt, who works in marketing in Brighton, south of London. "I hope that they feel that they should give people a bit more space and privacy."

A turnaround in the tabloids' tone

Headlines in Saturday's editions of U.K. newspapers almost universally express love and support for the princess. "Kate, You Are Not Alone," reads one. "We're all behind you, Kate," reads another. The hashtags #WeLoveYouCatherine and #GetWellSoonCatherine are trending on X, formerly Twitter.

A montage of the front pages of some of Britain's newspapers in London on Saturday.
Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP
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AP
A montage of the front pages of some of Britain's newspapers in London on Saturday.

In a statement posted to social media, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Kate had shown "tremendous bravery" despite having been subjected to "intense scrutiny" and "unfair" treatment by the media.

Messages of sadness and support are flooding London this weekend, from the White House, 10 Downing Street and California. Kate's brother-in-law, Prince Harry, and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, issued a statement saying they wish "health and healing for Kate and the family, and hope they are able to do so privately and in peace."

King Charles also has cancer

As with Kate, palace officials have not revealed what type of cancer King Charles III has, which stage it's in, where he's getting treatment — nor how long that treatment is expected to last.

Buckingham Palace issued a statement from the 75-year-old king late Friday saying he's "so proud of Catherine for her courage in speaking as she did."

Father and daughter-in-law had both been hospitalized in the same London clinic in January.

It's unclear when either of them plans to return to royal duties. The palace had said Kate would resume work sometime after the March 31 Easter holiday. But that looks uncertain in light of Friday's announcement.

Queen Camilla has stepped in to take over some of her husband's duties in recent weeks. The BBC's royal correspondent says that while William is still officially working, he's unlikely to travel far from home, while both his father and wife are unwell.

This is already a "slimmed-down monarchy," with the loss of Queen Elizabeth II about 18 months ago, and with Prince Harry, his wife Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, and the king's brother Prince Andrew, all relinquishing royal duties in recent years.

So the ceremonies, ribbon-cuttings — and possibly even the opening of a new parliament next fall — will fall on the shoulders of an ever-smaller group of working royals, for the coming months at least.

NPR producer Fatima Al-Kassab contributed to this report from London and Brighton, England.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Lauren Frayer
Lauren Frayer covers the United Kingdom, Ireland and parts of Europe for NPR News. She moved to London in spring 2023 after five years in Mumbai, covering South Asia.