Healthy Living

Jackie Kennedy Onassis's Battle with Lymphoma

Jackie Kennedy Onassis's Battle with Lymphoma

Jackie by Thomas Hawk (flickr)

Jackie Kennedy Onassis is one of the most iconic first ladies of all time, and an important cultural icon of the 20th century. Not only did she establish a model for the behavior and protocol of the first ladies that would follow her, but she was also a fashion icon and a well-respected book editor in the latter half of her life. Jackie Kennedy certainly endured a number of tragedies during her lifetime including the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, and later her brother-in-law, Robert Kennedy. While these historical events certainly merit attention and study, less attention is sometimes paid to Jackie Kennedy’s own, personal tragedies. Perhaps the most overlooked tragedy which Jackie Kennedy endured during her lifetime was her battle with lymphoma.

Diagnosis with lymphoma

Lymphoma is a condition that is difficult to detect early. Because lymphoma affects the lymph nodes, patients will not usually notice the symptoms of the disease until the cancer has already set in and perhaps begun to spread. Jackie Kennedy’s swollen lymph node in her thigh was first discovered after she was thrown from a horse during a hunting excursion in Virginia in November of 1993. At the time, doctors believed that she was just battling an infection and therefore prescribed her antibiotics to help fight the swelling. The antibiotics proved unhelpful, and in addition to her current symptoms worsening, Jackie Kennedy also began to develop new symptoms such as stomach pain and swollen lymph nodes in her neck.
Upon further examination, doctors discovered that Jackie Kennedy Onassis was not suffering from an infection, but rather from non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatment began in January of 1994. Around that same time, Jackie Kennedy signed a living will indicating that she did not want to persist in treatment if it was going to be unsuccessful.

At this point, the cause of lymphoma isn’t completely understood, and it was even more mysterious in 1994 when Jackie Kennedy first began her treatment. Essentially, lymphocytes – immune system cells – begin to overproduce and turn cancerous due to a gene mutation. While scientists are aware of the gene mutation that takes place, and have identified some of the risk factors such as hereditary genetics, a weakened immune system, and chronic infections, there isn’t one single factor that leads to the development of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Whatever the cause was in Jackie Kennedy’s case, after her condition was correctly diagnosed, she had an arduous treatment path before her.

Difficulty with treatment

Generally speaking, one of the difficulties in treating any kind of lymphoma is that the disease can spread easily throughout the body. Each lymphoma that develops is actually a separate pocket per se of cancer and has to be addressed in order to stop the cancer from spreading. In Jackie Kennedy’s case, she was treated with both chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapy to try and stop the cancer. At the onset of her treatment, medical providers were optimistic that the cancer was in remission and that Jackie Kennedy would recover. In many cases, non-Hodgki lymphoma can be successfully treated for quite some time, even if not eradicated completely. While it appeared as if this would be the case for Jackie Kennedy, her treatment actually proved much more complicated.

While the lymphomas in her thigh and neck did seem to disappear, soon afterwards doctors found that the cancer had spread to her brain and into her spinal column. The brain and spinal column are obviously critical regions in the human body, and treatment of these regions can also be difficult because they must be handled with care. Jackie Kennedy continued to undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatment in both her brain and spine, but after that point her medical providers wouldn’t be able to ever again completely rid her body of the cancer. Later that spring, the doctors discovered that the cancer had also spread to her liver.

One of the problems that’s common for cancer patients receiving treatment through chemotherapy is that their immune systems are weakened and therefore they are left more vulnerable to infection. During her several months of treatment, the chemotherapy took a toll on Jackie Kennedy’s body. In May of 1994 she was admitted again to the hospital and diagnosed with acute pneumonia which was a complication of her weakened immune system. Her medical providers attempted to place her on an antibiotic, but the drugs were ultimately unsuccessful. During the treatment for pneumonia, the doctors also discovered that the cancer had continued to spread throughout her body. At this point, the medical team decided that there was nothing else that could be done for Jackie Kennedy. In accordance with her living will, Jackie Kennedy was released from the hospital on May 18, 1994 and returned to her home in New York City. She died the next day.

Jackie Onassis's legacy

When she died, Jackie Kennedy left behind two children and three grandchildren, as well as several other near relatives, but she left behind much more than that. She left behind an enormous legacy. Jackie Kennedy Onassis rose to fame as the wife of politician John F. Kennedy. Not only was JFK a charismatic politician, but his eventual assassination marked his political career as one of the most tumultuous and recognizable in recent US history. During her time as first lady, Jackie Kennedy set the standard for grace and poise, especially when it came to fashion, and embarked on a massive project to restore the White House and turn it into an icon of American history and culture.

Following the death of her husband John F. Kennedy, Jackie later remarried to the Greek businessman Aristotle Onassis and spent much of her time outside the United States. Following Onassis’s death, she returned to the United States where she worked as an editor, led numerous philanthropic initiatives, and involved herself in several political campaigns. Although Jackie Kennedy was an incredibly public figure throughout her adult life, she attempted to maintain a degree of privacy. Jackie Kennedy has a negative relationship with various members of the paparazzi, going so far as to obtain restraining orders on photographers that followed her and photographed her without her permission. Her desire for privacy could at least partially explain the limited information about her battle with lymphoma. Although Jackie Kennedy couldn’t escape some press coverage about her condition, she tried to keep the details about her treatment private. During Jackie Kennedy’s treatment, even up to the week before she died, her publicity team withheld details about the dire state of her true condition and noted that they wanted her to be able to deal with the disease in private. Battling a disease like lymphoma is a struggle for any individual, celebrity or not. Fighting against this condition requires enormous amounts of energy and can often leave individuals feeling drained and weakened. Jackie Kennedy’s insistence on privacy highlights the reality that treatment for a disease like lymphoma can’t be the same across the board, and that every individual should approach treatment in a way that is best suited for them.

Final thoughts

When Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s name is mentioned, all kinds of images and ideals swirl into mind. From her marriage to John F. Kennedy and his tragic assassination, to her publicly criticized union to Aristotle Onassis, to her status as an American cultural icon, Jackie Kennedy Onassis certainly left her mark on the world. When she was eventually diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and began treatment for the disease, Jackie Kennedy had to go through a laborious treatment process. Riddled with complications, her treatment was eventually unsuccessful and Jackie Kennedy succumbed to the disease. Although her struggle with lymphoma was relatively private, Jackie Kennedy still embodied strength and persistence throughout her life, which are qualities that were most certainly characteristic of her battle with cancer.

You can read the original report about Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s battle with lymphoma in The New York Times.