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Irish debate disclosure of minister's cancer

The public disclosure of Brian Lenihan's cancer diagnosis caused outrage in Ireland.

The Irish minister for finance, Brian Lenihan, arrives at government buildings in Dublin, Dec. 9, 2009. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

DUBLIN, Ireland ― The Irish Finance Minister confirmed Monday after days of intense speculation that he has a dangerous form of cancer, though he will continue to serve in office while undergoing treatment.

But it wasn’t just the news that Brian Lenihan has cancer that has upset many people in Ireland — it's the way the story was broken. The practice of disclosing fully the medical conditions of public figures is not common in Ireland, and the way Lenihan's case was handled has caused widespread outrage.

His condition became a matter of public debate on Dec. 26 when TV3, an independent television station in Dublin, claimed that the minister had “pancreatic cancer,” a leading cause of cancer death. The television station gave the minister’s family 48 hours notice of its intention to go public with the story “as a matter of public interest.”

The 48-hour notice was seen as an ultimatum to go public with a private matter and the issue is being referred to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Until recent years the prognosis of cancer was so sensitive in Ireland that it was almost unacceptable to use the word in public. This lingering prejudice partly explains the anger at TV3.

The station claimed that it held the story for two days “to enable [Lenihan] to inform his family,” according to TV3’s director of news, Andrew Hanlon. It then informed viewers that Lenihan was suffering from a malignant tumor and that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In his first public comment on Irish radio on Monday, Lenihan said that cancerous tissue was found at the entrance to his pancreas in the week before Christmas.

On Dec. 24 several news organizations had asked for a response to reports in political circles that he had a serious illness, and that they had been promised a statement in the New Year.

“The medical condition of the minister of finance is of public interest, I don’t have an issue about that," Lenihan said. "I don’t see why it was of public interest to broadcast this information on St. Stephen’s Day [Dec. 26] as distinct from, say, 4 January. I would have liked a slightly longer opportunity to explain matters to my wider family and friends.”