The Illness Narrative: Australian Media Reporting of Kylie Minogue's Breast Cancer

Article excerpt

ON 17 May 2005, news bulletins on Australian radio and television carried the announcement that singer Kylie Minogue had been diagnosed with breast cancer earlier that day and that as a result, her forthcoming concert tour had been cancelled. State and national newspapers the next day carried the story--in most instances on the front page. Weekly magazines like New Idea, Woman's Day, NW, and Who took up the story, usually with cover pictures. It was a significant news item, especially for the print media, for approximately two weeks. In addition to comments about the diagnosis and the disease, the stories involved other celebrities offering support, her family and boyfriend rallying around, her treatment at a private Melbourne hospital and, at the end of the two weeks, when she had been discharged and no updates were forthcoming, a couple of negative pieces on the disruptions her presence had allegedly caused to visitors and other patients at the hospital. Several months later, pictures of her in a headscarf led to stories about her chemotherapy treatment.

There is no shortage of media stories of celebrities' encounters with illness and disease; they are a staple of magazine content in particular. We want here to examine coverage of Kylie's encounter in the light of previous studies of illness narratives to see what this particular instance can add to our understanding both of the role of celebrity in contemporary society and the mediated circulation of health information.

The term 'illness narrative' refers to stories ranging in length from magazine features to books, which recount an individual's experience with accident and disease, usually tracing the situation from onset through diagnosis, treatment and recovery. They may be told by the person directly involved or by someone close to them like a family member or friend, or they may be recounted by a journalist. Most examples that have been critically investigated are essentially (auto)biography in which the experience of the person with the medical condition is explored either for its intrinsic interest or as part of a self-help message for others who may find themselves in a similar situation. Researchers have noted a recent increase in the number of such publications. (1) Couser attributes this to advances in medicine which have led to increasing expectations of longevity against a cultural background of taking one's health for granted. He argues that when illness and disability do occur, they are regarded not so much as inevitable natural phenomena but as unexpected and perhaps disastrous events. (2) He says that the motives for this type of life writing reflect both an urge for self-exploration and a desire to serve those with the same condition. (3) Although most critics have concentrated on book-length narratives, we have found similarities in the much briefer illness narratives in magazines, despite elements of sensationalism characteristic of the more tabloid medium. (4)

The classic trajectory of these stories in both books and magazines means that they are retrospective, told from a present where the situation has been resolved (by recovery, successful adaptation, or occasionally death), about the more chaotic and uncertain past. An occasional variation occurs where a common form, the diary, rather than being published as a single retrospective item in full or in excerpts, is published progressively in a newspaper column as the situation unfolds. An instance of this was the British journalist John Diamond, Nigella Lawson's first husband, whose cancer diary was published in The Times until his death in 2001. Like this instance, they are more to be found in British than Australian outlets and usually chart the illness of someone who is themselves a journalist.

These illness narratives provide a major way in which we are informed about the experience of illness. Although medical professionals and public health bodies are constantly trying to inform us directly about health issues, studies reveal that the media remains the most important site for health information--and of the media, newspapers and television are more important for men, while magazines are for women. …


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