Dr. Patricia Farrell on Medika Life

Jackie Kennedy and Jane Fonda — Same Diagnosis, Different Decades and Treatments

Two of the most famous women in politics and film with the same diagnosis are eons apart in medical research that brings hope to cancer patients.

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis remains one of the foremost icons in American and world history, seen as a woman of taste and wealth and the wife of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. She died at age 64 in 1994 after a symptom of undiagnosed Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma was seen as benign during an ER visit prompted by a fall from a horse.

At the hospital, they discovered the swollen lymph node, diagnosed it as a minor infection, and treated it with antibiotics. Her health began a downward spiral afterward as she began to experience symptoms that required further medical exploration.

In January 1994, additional swollen lymph nodes appeared, and tests finalized the diagnosis. Various treatments, including radiation to her brain, were begun, and cancer spread to her liver, spine, and brain. She died within five months. At the time, she would receive world-class treatments at the most prestigious medical centers to no avail. Today, the outlook for the disease is much improved with advances in medicine.

The actress Jane Fondaage 85, revealed that she, too, has Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and is faring well with treatment. No longer viewed as a fatal illness, the prognosis for patients has improved significantly since 1994.

As Fonda noted on her social media account:

This is a very treatable cancer. 80% of people survive, so I feel very lucky.

I’m also lucky because I have health insurance and access to the best doctors and treatments. I realize, and it’s painful, that I am privileged in this. Almost every family in America has had to deal with cancer at one time or another, and far too many don’t have access to the quality health care I am receiving and this is not right… I’m doing chemo for 6 months and am handling the treatments quite well and, believe me, I will not let any of this interfere with my climate activism.”

Causes and Treatments

Why someone develops the disease is still a question for researchers to answer. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is caused by a change (mutation) in the DNA of a type of white blood cell called lymphocytes, although the exact reason why this happens isn’t known.

Even before treatment, diagnosing cancer brings dread and anxiety because “the Big C” has always brought serious stress. As The American Cancer Society notes, Simply finding a lump or possible other sign or symptom of cancer can cause anxiety and fear, along with finding out that they have cancer or that the cancer has come back. Fear of treatment, doctor visits, and tests might also cause apprehension (the feeling that something bad is going to happen). Their website provides ways to help a cancer patient cope with this diagnosis-related anxiety.

The stories we’ve heard over the decades have ingrained this fear into us as hopes for a “cure” seemed dim. Now, instead of cure, we hear that cancers can go into remission and that more effective treatments are available.

Cancer specialists are no longer only found at major research centers but all across the country. Jane Fonda knows that, and she also knows that using her positive attitude to continue her many activities as she receives treatment is helpful. A positive attitude, as we know, is one way to aid our immune system in coping with disease invaders.

Anyone who has experienced cancer-related anxiety should know that evidence of added anxiety in cancer survivors is strong and must be considered in any treatment plan. In a study of 3370 survivors, 40% of the survivors reported moderate to high anxiety scores, and approximately 20% reported moderate to high depression scores. These levels were higher than levels of anxiety in the general population.

Treatments for the disease have come a long way since Jackie Kennedy was diagnosed. Now, in addition to radiation, stem cell transplant, and chemotherapy, we have immune-boosting techniques. A form of immunotherapy known as CAR T-cell therapy is increasingly being used to treat some people with the blood cancer non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL).

Even newer treatments are on the horizon, and the belief is that we will have more powerful weapons to fight this and other forms of cancer in the future.

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Pat Farrell PhD
Pat Farrell PhDhttps://medium.com/@drpatfarrell
I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.


Medika Editor: Mental Health

I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.

Patricia also acts in an editorial capacity for Medika's mental health articles, providing invaluable input on a wide range of mental health issues.

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