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Why Did Sally Ride Keep Her Cancer Secret?

By Heather Millar

It would have been difficult, this week, to miss the news that Sally Ride, the first American woman to blast into outer space, had died of pancreatic cancer at age 61.

I’ve always admired Ride. We went to the same university and I was working on the college paper in 1983 when she soared into public consciousness aboard the space shuttle Challenger. The campus hoopla at the time was palpable.

Ride went on to make one more trip into space, to develop a reputation for being tough, smart, and cool under pressure. She asked tough questions when appointed to the panel investigating the 1986 Challenger explosion, and again in 2003 after the Columbia disintegrated over Texas. She founded a company, Sally Ride Science, to encourage young people’s interest in the sciences. There’s not much I can add to all the well-deserved paeans to her life, nor to the many articles lamenting how deadly pancreatic cancer can be. Ride lived only 17 months after her diagnosis, and the trajectory of her case was depressingly par for the course.

Here’s the thing I don’t understand: Ride chose to keep her illness completely, almost totally private. She asked NASA not to release the news. Only those very closest to her knew she was dying. As her sister, Bear Ride, put it in an essay that she’s been circulating, “For 17 months, nobody knew, and everyone does now.”

Maybe this is because it turns out she was gay, a detail that was discretely made public in obits with the mention of her “partner of 27 years.” Maybe it was because she was a scientist and a Norwegian—groups not known for their effusiveness. When Ride was flying into space, news reporters expressed frustration that she didn’t talk much about “how it felt” to be the first American woman in space. Ride had a fundamental sense of privacy. Throughout her career, she declined offers of memoir deals, product endorsements, and so on.

Of course, Ride has a right to her privacy. Apparently she’d always been a private, can-do, non-complaining sort of person. Ride didn’t talk about things; she did them. Why would that change after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer?

And yet, I still don’t get it. I’ve long struggled to understand why some people’s response to illness is to shut the world out. We all die alone, I guess, but I’d like to do it with lots of people around. Tell everybody! Party at Heather’s deathbed! If I were dying of pancreatic cancer, I’d get comfort from people’s letters and praises. Maybe I’d even use that platform of interest to push the causes that were dear to me — in Ride’s case, science education.

But then, I’m not Sally Ride. I’m not private, obviously. I try to get things done, sure, but I’m talking the whole time. I wouldn’t even begin to know how to keep a secret like that.

What’s your view? Why might you choose to keep your cancer private? Or, why not?

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