Roger Ebert: A Thyroid Cancer Patient to Remember

Roger Ebert, Film Critic and Thyroid Cancer Patient, Remembered. RogerEbert.com

Film critic Roger Ebert didn't make thyroid advocacy his primary mission -- his love of films always had first place -- but his grace, courage, and willingness to share his own story -- and subsequent struggles -- have made him one of the most admired thyroid cancer patients in history.

Ebert had had a salivary gland tumor removed in 1987, so he thought that it was a recurrence when he first noticed a lump under his chin in 2002.

A biopsy showed that it was thyroid cancer. Ebert had the papillary form of thyroid cancer, and when his thyroid cancer was first diagnosed, his physician, Dr. Harold Pelzer, said that he had a common, slow-growing type of cancer and that his long-term prognosis was "excellent." Ebert had surgery, followed by radioactive iodine treatment.

Ebert has said that he had radiation treatments when he was younger, which is a known risk factor for thyroid cancer.

The following year, he had salivary cancer again. (Thyroid cancer patients face an increased risk of developing a second primary cancer, including salivary cancer.) Ebert had aggressive radiation treatments, but in 2006 when cancer surfaced yet again in his jaw, he had surgery to remove part of his jaw. During his recovery, his carotid artery burst, and to save his life, an additional surgery left him with almost no jaw, and a tracheostomy to make sure he could breathe.

That surgery also cost him his voice...at least vocally. But Ebert never shied away from writing and appearing in public, even after the disfigurement of his surgeries, and his reliance on a computer to speak for him.

Roger Ebert was 70 when he died on April 4, 2013. He reportedly had a hip fracture in December of 2012 that was caused by a recurrence and metastasis of his cancer.

Over the years, however, Ebert kept openly sharing his voice and thoughts through his writing, via his film reviews, blog posts, Twitter, books, interviews and photos. It seemed to be therapeutic for him. On his blog, he wrote: "When I am writing my problems become invisible and I am the same person I always was. All is well. I am as I should be."

One of my favorite posts was titled Nil by Mouth, where he described poignantly what life was like without eating, drinking, and without his trademark voice.

In his TED talk from April of 2012, Ebert, talking with a computer voice program and with help from his wife Chaz -- discussed his surgeries and challenges. Said Ebert: "It is human nature to look away from illness." But Ebert asked us not to look away, just as he didn't look away himself.

One of the best summaries of Ebert's life and spirit was a superb Esquire Magazine profile of Ebert by writer Chris Jones.

Two days before he died, Ebert blogged that would be taking a "leave of presence" -- reviewing only selected movies of his choice -- to deal with yet another cancer recurrence.

Sadly, it was his last post.

Still, his fans, and the cancer community, will continue to feel Roger Ebert's presence for a long time to come.

Here are two particularly apt quotes from Roger Ebert's blog that I think beautifully sum up his philosophy:

"I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out."
"I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting. My lifetime's memories are what I have brought home from the trip."

It was his desire to contribute joy and happiness to the world, even as his health failed, that made Roger Ebert someone that thyroid -- or any cancer -- patients can look up to, admire, and long remember.

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