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How King Charles and Kate Middleton’s Health Challenges Are Already Changing the Royal Family

"Relatable" doesn't usually come to mind when describing the royal family. But here's why being upfront about health issues may bring the monarchy closer to the British people than ever.

By Natalie Finn Feb 10, 2024 2:00 PMTags
Watch: Prince William Breaks Silence on King Charles III’s Cancer Diagnosis

When King George VI was diagnosed with lung cancer in the 1950s, hardly anyone outside the walls of Buckingham Palace knew about it.

For a time, even the monarch himself didn't know the extent of his condition, doctors not wanting to stress him even further.

Only after the king died at the age of 56, turning his 25-year-old eldest daughter into Queen Elizabeth II, did the rest of the world find out just how ill he had been.

That level of secrecy was not an option for King Charles III, who announced Feb. 5 that he'd been diagnosed with cancer and would be stepping back from public-facing duties while he underwent treatment.

"There would be a great deal of speculation if nothing was said by the palace," royals correspondent Sharon Carpenter exclusively told E! News. At the same time, "though we are seeing more transparency than ever before when it comes to the health of the monarch, there's still a lot of information that hasn't been given."

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King Charles III's Road to the Throne

Doctors found the cancer while Charles was undergoing a procedure for an enlarged prostate last month, but according to the palace he does not have prostate cancer. No other details have been disclosed, but the palace said the king was grateful for his medical team's "swift intervention," remained "wholly positive about his treatment" and looked forward to returning to "full public duty as soon as possible."

Still, that leaves plenty of room for speculation.

"People are trying to respect that there needs to be some privacy there," Carpenter told E!, "that this is not just an institution, that this is a real family, that we are dealing with real humans. But people are wondering, what is the prognosis? What kind of treatment is King Charles undergoing?"

Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Questions aside, however, this is still more than the public knew about the state of Queen Elizabeth II's health during what turned out to be the final year of her life.

Increasingly the palace said that "mobility problems" were preventing the nonagenarian from attending every event on her calendar, including parts of her Platinum Jubilee. And even after her death in September 2022 was officially attributed to old age, speculation has lingered about what could have been wrong that was never disclosed.

Yet the king's decision to reveal his cancer diagnosis and, before that, the fact that he had prostate issues wasn't just to prevent people from coming up with their own theories if he wasn't seen in public for awhile. 

Rather, Charles remains intent on communicating that this isn't your grandfather's monarchy. Or his mother's.

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Royal Family's Christmas Walk 2023

"That's really the message he's tried to get across," Carpenter said. "This is a new modern-day monarchy that is relatable and represents the public."

And while "relatable" may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of an obscenely wealthy family with roots dating back centuries, the head of which was crowned alongside wife Queen Camilla last April by the Archbishop of Canterbury, nothing hits closer to home than health issues.

News of Charles' cancer diagnosis also came just a few weeks after his daughter-in-law Kate Middleton underwent abdominal surgery for an as-yet undisclosed reason. Kensington Palace has said that the Princess of Wales is going to be on a break from her duties until after Easter while she recovers, meaning the Firm was already going to be down one of its most popular executives even before the CEO was relegated to his desk behind the scenes. 

Carpenter expects that more details about Charles' condition will be shared eventually, and she similarly expects Kate—an advocate for moms, mental health awareness, and early childhood development—to speak out about the nature of her surgery when the time feels right for her.

Karwai Tang/WireImage

"The queen's way of doing things, her stoic approach, not showing much emotion—that worked for the 70 years of her reign," Carpenter noted. "And England, for many of those years, was a different place."

Nowadays, however, people are used to perfect strangers spilling their guts online. And while no one is asking the royal family for a 24/7 live feed (well, perhaps someone has asked, but it isn't widely demanded), the public likes it when the façade cracks.

"There's something to be said about this infallible nature, this keeping calm and carrying on," Carpenter noted. "There's a lot of respect around that. But I think showing that they're human, that they go through the same things that we go through—a lot of people have softened toward King Charles, but also to the royal family in general. They're just like us—they just don't talk about it in the same way that we might."

And that goes for the side of the family that has made a historic practice of neither confirming nor denying and the side that writes books and makes Netflix documentaries.

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Prince Harry and Prince William's Feud: A Timeline

Speaking of which, Prince Harry has already been to the U.K. to see his father in the wake of his diagnosis. And while he reportedly did not see Prince Williamwhom he's "barely communicated" with since the the January 2023 release of his memoir Spare, according to Carpenter—the king's health scare has fanned another round of hopes that tensions between Charles and his youngest son might ease for good.

But it's also simply a good thing for someone with a huge platform to use it to remind others that certain ailments can happen to anybody and to go get checked out.

On the National Health Service website, "searches for prostate issues went up by a thousand percent following the announcement that King Charles was having this [procedure] done," Carpenter said, "and with this information about him being diagnosed with cancer, they hope that will help promote public understanding around people who've been affected by cancer." 

The Royal Family's Instagram had just posted about World Cancer Day on Feb. 4, before the announcement was made about the king, and has shared links to resources for cancer patients and caregivers.

Chris Jackson/Getty Images

"Knowing that a member of the royal family is dealing with a particular situation—again, we look at them oftentimes as made of steel and nothing affects them, they aren't led by their emotions and they never seem to be ill, they're not real people," Carpenter said. "I think just knowing that they are is a really good way to encourage others to be on top of their own health."

And while they will never not be a "very private family," she added, "this more human side of the royal family is going to continue to win people over."

Are the royals also wondering how it's still only February? Here's everything that's been happening with the family so far in 2024:

King Charles Diagnosed With Cancer

While King Charles III was in the hospital for his benign prostate enlargement procedure, the royal family member was diagnosed with cancer.

"His Majesty has today commenced a schedule of regular treatments, during which time he has been advised by doctors to postpone public-facing duties," Buckingham Palace said Feb. 5. "Throughout this period, His Majesty will continue to undertake State business and official paperwork as usual.The King is grateful to his medical team for their swift intervention, which was made possible thanks to his recent hospital procedure. He remains wholly positive about his treatment and looks forward to returning to full public duty as soon as possible."

Sarah Ferguson Is Diagnosed With a Second Type of Cancer

The Duchess of York's rep said in a statement on Jan. 21 that Sarah was recently diagnosed with malignant melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer. Several months prior, she underwent a single mastectomy to treat breast cancer.

Queen Margrethe II of Denmark Abdicates the Throne

On Jan. 14, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark made history as she officially abdicated the throne, handing the crown over to her son, now known as King Frederik the 10th

Kate Middleton Is Hospitalized

Kensington Palace announced on Jan. 17 that Kate Middleton underwent planned abdominal surgery and was set to remain in the hospital for 10 to 14 days.

"Based on the current medical advice," the Palace said, "she is unlikely to return to public duties until after Easter."

Prince William Adjusting His Schedule

Amid Kate's recovery, Prince William postponed a number of engagements as he supported his family, including the couple's three children, Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis.

King Charles III Undergoing Treatment

Shortly after Kate's hospitalization was made public, Buckingham Palace shared that Charles "has sought treatment for an enlarged prostate."

"His Majesty's condition is benign and he will attend hospital next week for a corrective procedure," the statement added. "The King’s public engagements will be postponed for a short period of recuperation."

Luxembourg Welcomes a New Baby

Princess Claire and Prince Felix of Luxembourg welcomed son Balthazar Felix Karl on Jan. 7, the first royal baby of the New Year!