Olmert's courageous disclosure

Perhaps greatest benefit is realization cancer can be discussed openly.

Olmert open arms 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Olmert open arms 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Sheba Medical Center physicians are to be congratulated for their speedy disclosure of his prostate cancer just days after he himself learned he had the disease. Legally, he could have hidden the fact. Indeed, Olmert is the first premier to voluntarily publicize that he has a potentially serious illness, even though in his case - thanks to early detection, with a tumor in a microscopic stage that has not spread to any other organ - his chances for a full recovery reach 95 percent. Olmert left the room in the Prime Minister's Office quickly after an initial statement, allowing his personal physician and the urologist who will apparently operate on him to answer the questions of correspondents who are not experts in medical matters. His predecessor, Ariel Sharon, sent his doctors to speak to many of these same reporters after his first stroke nearly two years ago; health reporters who might have understood the implications and been able to ask more informed questions were not invited - as they were not to yesterday's press conference (which is unfortunate). Sharon had his catastrophic second stroke not long after that press conference, and went into the coma that still confines him to his bed at Sheba. Olmert's announcement came at a significant time for the Israel Cancer Association, which recently launched a public awareness campaign about prostate cancer and will surely attract more attention now; the details that gradually came out of Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem's Ein Kerem, where Sharon was hospitalized, made the general public acutely aware of the symptoms and causes of stroke. An ICA workshop for prostate cancer patients had 500 registered participants by Monday morning; it is likely to have many more by the time it is held in less than three weeks' time. Prostate cancer is the most common malignancy in Israeli men and is discovered in 2,250 more every year. It kills 380 annually. It is tricky, as it cannot be clearly diagnosed - unlike breast cancer, which can be picked up by a mammography and other scanning and biopsy techniques. The presence of prostate cancer can be signalled by a blood test for prostate-specific antigen (PSA), but there are false-positive and false-negative results. As it can take many years - even decades - to develop, many men may go to their graves with the disease, but their deaths have not been caused by it. But awareness of the disease is important, as the age of paternalistic doctors telling patients what to do is gone. People must take responsibility for their own health, preventing disease and monitoring their conditions as they consider the advice, guidance and options from their physicians. The Israel Medical Association correctly stated that there is, as yet, no law requiring prime ministers to forgo their privacy and fully disclose their medical conditions. As the national leader's doctor feels an obligation to the patient and is likely to be squeezed by an uncomfortable conflict of interest, an arrangement should be instituted in which an objective medical panel examines the prime minister or his test results and issues periodic reports to the public. It might also be a good idea to set such requirements for party candidates for the premiership. Perhaps the greatest benefit from Olmert's courageous revelation is the realization that cancer can be discussed openly, without flinching, and that the disease can be cured. Survival and cure rates continue to rise, which should encourage increasingly open discussion of this painful subject. It must not be just a "C-word." More state funds should be spent on cancer research, and the Treasury must allocate more money to expand the basket of health services to include lifesaving drugs for cancer and other diseases by automatically updating the basket by two percent every year. And preventing cancer - by not smoking, eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly and minimizing environmental and occupational exposure to carcinogens - should become both part of our lifestyle and a major national target. We wish the prime minister a refua shlema -- a speedy recovery.