Celebs that hid scary cancer diagnoses

Cancer can be one of the scariest words in the English language. It can prove overwhelming and life-altering for those touched by such a terrifying illness, and how people deal with this news is, of course, entirely up to them. While some may choose to open up and share their health struggle with the world, others might decide to keep it to themselves. However, that decision can prove to be even more of a challenge for celebs — and a bit more uncontrollable. 

Secrets don't always stay hidden in Tinseltown, even for something as private as cancer. By living such a public life, these stars are often forced to speak about their illnesses publicly or risk having them bandied about in the tabloids and rumor mills without their permission. But not all famous faces are at the mercy of others, and some have even managed to keep their cancer battles under wraps. Whether they hid their personal health woes to protect their careers, themselves, or simply just because, here are some celebs that hid scary cancer diagnoses.

David Bowie

The untimely death of legendary musician David Bowie at the age of 69 shocked the world in January 2016. At the time, it was announced on his official Facebook page that he'd passed away as a result of "a courageous 18 month battle with cancer." Though the exact type of cancer wasn't revealed, a source close to Bowie suggested it was liver cancer.

This was the first fans had heard the singer-songwriter was even sick. However, when the video for Bowie's final single, "Lazarus," came out just days earlier, his devoted fan base had interpreted it as a knowing goodbye. At times in the video, the rock icon lies in a hospital bed while singing lyrics like, "Look up here, I'm in heaven." However, music video director Johan Renck later claimed that may not have been the intention. "To me it had to do with the biblical aspect of it," he said in the 2017 documentary, David Bowie: The Last Five Years (via The Guardian). "It had nothing to do with him being ill." Bowie himself may not have known his illness was terminal until after the video's concept was created. Renck added, "I found out later that, the week we were shooting, it was when he was told it was over. They were ending treatments and that his illness had won."

Cobie Smulders

While filming the third season of the hit show, How I Met Your Mother, actress Cobie Smulders learned that she had ovarian cancer. However, she chose to keep the diagnosis to herself and underwent several surgeries over the next two years to remove the affected tissue, before finally opening up about her experience in an interview with Women's Health in 2015.

"I had tumors on both ovaries," the Avengers star told the magazine. "The cancer had spread into my lymph nodes and surrounding tissues." Despite beating the disease, Smulders added, "I don't think I'll ever feel like I'm cancer-free. Now that I'm five years out, I'm trying to think of it as a positive thing and what can I learn from it. And if I can create more awareness, I'll do it." As part of her efforts, the actress launched her "Not on My Watch" PSA in 2018. While speaking with Marie Claire at the time, Smulders explained, "It's so infuriating to just be waiting around for something else to happen or for something not to happen. It's really the reason that I was very excited about this campaign, because it empowers women not do that — to not sit around and watch and wait, but rather to be as proactive as you can with your health and make sure that you're educated about all of your options."

Jackie Collins

The news of novelist Jackie Collins' cancer battle came from a statement given by her family in 2015. "It is with tremendous sadness that we announce the death of our beautiful, dynamic and one of a kind mother, Jackie Collins, who died of breast cancer today," the statement read in part (via People). According to the publication, the author told her three daughters about her stage 4 diagnosis, but ultimately decided to keep the health news private for six-and-a-half years. However, she finally opened up about it during her final interview with People just five days before she passed away.

"Looking back, I'm not sorry about anything I did," Collins said of the decision to keep her cancer battle secret. "I did it my way, as Frank Sinatra would say. I've written five books since the diagnosis, I've lived my life, I've [traveled] all over the world, I have not turned down book tours and no one has ever known until now when I feel as though I should come out with it."

Ben Stiller

Two years following his cancer diagnosis, Ben Stiller broke his silence on the matter during a 2016 appearance on The Howard Stern Show in an effort to promote the PSA test for prostate cancer screening. Calling it "a very controversial subject," Stiller explained, "The PSA test is the only early screener for prostate cancer and, right now, the United States Preventative Services Task Force does not recommend to take the test." The actor-director added, "I think American Cancer Society says you should discuss it at 50. If I hadn't taken the test — my doctor started giving it to me at 46 — I would not have known. Right now, I still wouldn't have known."

Around that time, Stiller further discussed the test and his "mid-range aggressive cancer," which was found in a tumor, in a piece penned for Medium. "Surgery was recommended," he wrote. "Ultimately, I found a wonderful surgeon named Edward Schaeffer who I felt comfortable with. He performed a robotic assisted laparoscopic radical prostatectomy." The operation was thankfully a success, with Stiller adding, "As of this writing I am two years cancer free and extremely grateful."

Edie Falco

Edie Falco was giving an Emmy Award-winning performance on The Sopranos when she was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer in 2003. However, she chose to hide the news from her coworkers to protect both her privacy and her own sanity. "It was very important for me to keep my diagnosis under the radar," the actress told Health five years later, "even from the cast and crew of The Sopranos, because well-meaning people would have driven me crazy asking, 'How are you feeling?'" She added, "I would have wanted to say, 'I'm scared, I don't feel so good, and my hair is falling out.'"

While keeping the cancer news hidden at work with the help of producer (and friend) Ilene Landress, Falco underwent chemotherapy and prioritized taking good care of herself. Thankfully, she learned in 2004 that she was in remission and "realized cancer wasn't going to kill [her]." The TV star continued, "Obviously, it wasn't meant for me to die of cancer at 40. Every day my life surprises me, just like my cancer diagnosis surprised me. But you roll with it. That's our job as humans."

Michael C. Hall

Prior to filming season five of Dexter in 2010, lead actor Michael C. Hall released a statement that publicly revealed for the first time that he'd been battling Hodgkin's lymphoma, but was thankfully in remission as he neared the end of his treatments. "I feel fortunate to have been diagnosed with an imminently treatable and curable condition," the actor's statement read (via Reuters). "I thank my doctors and nurses for their expertise and care." 

With award show season kicking off at the time, a hat-donning Hall decided to open up about his health scare at the 2010 Golden Globes. "I had every intention of keeping it quiet," he explained backstage after accepting the award for best actor in a television drama (via The Telegraph). "But because the award shows were imminent I thought I'd make a statement." Meanwhile, Dexter costar Lauren Vélez revealed that Hall and his wife, fellow costar Jennifer Carpenter, had kept things under wraps at work, as well. "He's always been very private and throws himself into his work," she told E! News. "So I knew nothing of it, and I don't think anyone else did either."

Steve Jobs

Apple founder Steve Jobs died from pancreatic cancer in 2011 following a long bout with the disease. Leading up to his death, many people knew about his health concerns. After all, in 2004, Jobs sent a letter to company shareholders following his diagnosis to reveal that he'd had surgery to remove the tumor. According to ABC News, there were also rumors, confirmations, and medical leaves in the years before his passing. 

However, there was a gap between his diagnosis and the above-mentioned official announcement. For approximately nine months, Jobs kept his diagnosis relatively secret while he searched for alternative therapies (via CNN). Despite some talk about whether Jobs misled the public and investors by withholding this information, his silence may have been in an effort to protect Apple. Indeed, CNN reports that the board and company executives decided to keep the news private for this very reason, because "news of his illness, especially with an uncertain outcome, would surely send the company's stock reeling." The media outlet went on to reveal, "The board decided to say nothing, after seeking advice on its obligations from two outside lawyers, who agreed it could remain silent."

Nora Ephron

Along with the news of Nora Ephron's death in 2012 came the reveal of her illness, advanced-stage leukemia. For many, this was the first time anyone even heard that she was sick. According to a source cited by the New York Post, "She knew about it for a few years." However, the insider added, "Treatment was not working. She wasn't going to get better."

The writer of hit movies like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, Ephron decided not to address her health issues, even with her close friends — some of whom later suggested in the 2015 documentary, Everything Is Copy, that they could only guess at the seriousness of it all. One pal mentioned that she was tipped off when Ephron ordered dessert (which she apparently never did) and requested a cab to take her only a couple of blocks home following a lunch outing just days before her passing (via the New York Post). Another friend called her a "control freak," while the media outlet alleged, "Ephron's illness was something she couldn't control, so she pretended it wasn't there."

Kathy Bates

As a proud supporter of the biennial Stand Up To Cancer fundraiser, Kathy Bates has long been open about her battle with cancer. However, she wasn't always that way. In fact, the actress initially kept her battle with stage 1 ovarian cancer private following her diagnosis in 2003, which resulted in surgery and nine months of chemotherapy. "I didn't tell anybody," the American Horror Story star told People in 2018. "I continued to work right after the operation, doing Little Black Book with Brittany Murphy. My agent at the time was very old-school and didn't want me to be the poster child for ovarian cancer. I didn't want anyone to know, but it really took a lot out of me."

Bates was later diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 and underwent a double mastectomy. "My aunt had died from it, my mother had it, my niece had it," a cancer-free actress explained to the media outlet. However, Bates went on to reveal that having her lymph nodes removed during her cancer scare treatments led to her battle with lymphedema, which she called "a souvenir you definitely don't want." She's since used her celeb platform to raise awareness about the disease through the Lymphatic Education & Research Network.

Christina Applegate

Christina Applegate was working on the set of Samantha Who? when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. During an interview on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2008, the actress revealed that she worked for about five weeks right after undergoing surgery, but decided to keep the news to herself and few others. 

"I told my make-up and hair people and people that are really close to me," Applegate told the titular host at the time (via Reuters), "just so I had a protection wall so that no one was pushing me." However, it wasn't until after she underwent her double mastectomy that Applegate went public with her diagnosis. She opened up about the decision to have the operation on The Oprah Winfrey Show: "It came on really fast. It was one of those things that I woke up and it felt so right ... It just seemed like I don't want, next year, to have to deal with this again." Applegate added, "I was just going to let them go."

Olivia Newton-John

Olivia Newton-John was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 on the same weekend her father passed away from cancer. At the time, the Grease actress underwent a partial mastectomy and various other treatments to overcome the disease, and used her celeb platform to help raise awareness by putting her own name behind a research and treatment center. "The whole experience has given me much understanding and compassion, so much so that I wanted to help others going through the same journey," she wrote in an essay on the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre's website. The singer-actress went on to call her organization "a positive healing Centre to support people on their cancer journey."

Unfortunately, the disease returned in 2013, but this time, Newton-John decided to keep the news private until announcing her second breast cancer battle on Facebook four years later. "The first time I talked about it," she told Sunday Night in 2018. "The second time I thought, 'Oh, I don't really need to share this. It's not something I need to share with people. It's my life.' And I just decided to keep it to myself."

Michael Douglas

When Michael Douglas appeared on The David Letterman Show in 2010, he announced that he had throat cancer. Revealing to the host and audience alike that he was in treatment, the actor suggested that it was detected because he'd had a "really sore throat." While speaking with The Guardian three years later, Douglas got into more detail about the disease and how he may have gotten it: "Without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV [human papillomavirus], which actually comes about from cunnilingus."

However, this story changed once again a few years later. During a TV segment for Male Cancer Awareness Week, Douglas told Samuel L. Jackson that he'd actually been diagnosed with tongue cancer (via CNN). "The surgeon said, 'Let's just say it's throat cancer,'" he admitted, explaining that he chose to avoid the truth because the optics of tongue cancer aren't great. According to Douglas, the doctor warned him that if the cancer battle resulted in surgery, "It's not going to be pretty. You could lose part of your tongue and jaw." Thankfully, the treatments were a success and Douglas announced he was cancer-free back in 2011.