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In Memoriam: Remembering the Celebrities We Lost to Cancer in 2020

In Memoriam: Remembering the Celebrities We Lost to Cancer in 2020
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Published on January 25, 2021

In Remembrance of the Celebrities We Lost to Cancer This Year

Singers. Politicians. TV and film stars. In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic caused more than 300,000 deaths in the United States and disrupted every aspect of life: going to school, shopping at the mall, eating in a restaurant, working in an office.

But cancer didn’t stop. More than 600,000 deaths from cancer were expected in 2020, according to the American Cancer Society — more than 1,600 deaths each day. Patient Power remembers the celebrities we lost to cancer in 2020.

Eddie Van Halen — the legendary guitarist and co-founder of Van Halen — died on Oct. 6 at a hospital in Santa Monica, Calif., at the age of 65. Van Halen was first diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2000 and had surgery to remove one-third of his tongue. The cancer had already started to spread to the esophagus and throat. He was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in late 2017 and a brain tumor in 2019, according to his son, Wolfgang.

Kelly Preston, an actress known for her roles in “Jerry Maguire” (1996), “For Love of the Game” (1999) and “What a Girl Wants” (2003) died on July 12 after a private two-year battle with breast cancer. She was 57. Preston, the wife of John Travolta, died at their home in Florida.

Chadwick Boseman, an actor well-known for his roles as King T'Challa in “Black Panther” (2018), Jackie Robinson in “42” (2013) and James Brown in “Get on Up” (2014), died on Aug. 28 from colon cancer. He was 43. Boseman was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in 2016 but kept it a secret. He filmed his recent movies ''during and between countless surgeries and chemotherapy," according to a statement issued on his Twitter account. He died at his home in Los Angeles with his family by his side.

Civil rights activist and Georgia congressman John Lewis died on July 17 from metastatic pancreatic cancer at the age of 80. Lewis had announced his diagnosis in December 2019. “While I am clear-eyed about the prognosis, doctors have told me that recent medical advances have made this type of cancer treatable in many cases, that treatment options are no longer as debilitating as they once were and that I have a fighting chance,” he said at the time. Lewis died at his home in Atlanta.

Alex Trebek, the beloved host of the game show “Jeopardy!” since its 1984 debut, died on Nov. 8 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 80. Trebek revealed in March 2019 that he had been diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. “I have lived a good life, a full life and I’m nearing the end of that life,” he told USA Today later that year. He released his memoir the “The Answer Is . . .” in July, which he worked on during the coronavirus pandemic. Trebek’s last day in the studio was Oct. 29. He died at his home in Los Angeles.

Natalie Ann Desselle-Reid, an actress known for roles in the films “B.A.P.S.” (1997), “Set It Off” (1996) and “Madea's Big Happy Family” (2011), died on Dec. 7 of colon cancer. She was 53. Desselle-Reid was reportedly in hospice care in Los Angeles in her final days and was surrounded by family when she passed.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a legal and feminist icon and champion of gender equality, died on Sept. 18 of pancreatic cancer at her Washington, D.C. home. She was 87. Justice Ginsburg had endured several bouts of cancer: colon cancer in 1999, pancreatic cancer 10 years later, lung cancer in 2018, and then pancreatic cancer again in 2019 and liver lesions in 2020. In “RBG,” the 2018 documentary about her life, Ginsburg said that her run-ins with cancer had given her “an enhanced appreciation of the joys of being alive.”

Timothy Ray Brown, who became the first person to be cured of HIV, died on September 29 of a recurrence of acute myeloid leukemia — the same cancer that prompted the transplants he received in 2007 and 2008, which cured him of the infection. He was 54. Brown, also known as “the Berlin patient,” was working in Berlin as a translator when he was diagnosed with HIV and later leukemia. He received stem cells from a donor who carried a mutation known to confer natural resistance to HIV. He stopped taking antiretroviral drugs just before his first transplant on Feb. 16, 2007, and remained free of the virus until his death. He died at his Palm Springs, Calif. home.

"MasterChef Junior" contestant Ben Watkins died on Nov. 16 after a year-and-a-half-long battle with angiomatoid fibrous histiocytoma, a rare soft tissue tumor most commonly occurring in children and young adults. He was 14. Watkins was diagnosed days before his 13th birthday. He died at Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. His death came only three years after his parents died in a murder-suicide.

James Redford, a documentary filmmaker and tireless advocate of organ and tissue donation, died on Oct. 16 from bile-duct cancer in his liver. He was 58. Redford, the son of Hollywood star Robert Redford, had battled primary sclerosing cholangitis, a long-term condition that impacts the bile ducts, for nearly 30 years. He underwent two liver transplants. His wife, Kyle, said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune that her husband’s liver disease returned two years ago. The cancer was discovered in November of last year as he was awaiting another liver transplant. He died at his Marin County, Calif. home.

Baseball Hall of Fame knuckleball pitcher Phil Niekro died on Dec. 26 in his sleep after a long battle with an unspecified cancer. He was 81. Niekro primarily pitched for the Atlanta Braves during his 24-year career, which spanned from 1964 to 1987. He also played for the New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays. He was inducted into the baseball’s Cooperstown shrine in 1997. Over the course of his major league career, he won 318 games, lost 274 and had a 3.35 earned run average. Niekro lived in Flowery Branch, Georgia.

Joel Schumacher, who directed classic films such as “Flatliners” (1990), “The Lost Boys” (1987), “St. Elmo's Fire” (1985) and “Batman Forever” (1995), died on June 22 in New York after a year-long battle with an unspecified cancer. He was 80. Schumacher first entered filmmaking as a production and costume designer before gaining writing credits on “Car Wash” (1976), “Sparkle” (1976) and “The Wiz” (1978). More recently, he directed a few episodes of the Netflix drama "House of Cards" (2011) and Investigation Discovery’s DO NOT DISTURB: HOTEL HORRORS (2015).

Mary Pat Gleason, whose film and television credits include “Basic Instinct,” “The Blacklist,” “A Cinderella Story,” and more recently the CBS sitcom “Mom,” died of uterine cancer on June 2. She was 70. Throughout her career, Gleason appeared in episodes of "Friends," "Will & Grace" and "American Housewife." She won a Daytime Emmy Award in 1986 as part of the writing team for the soap opera "The Guiding Light."

Don Larsen, who pitched the only perfect game in World Series history, died on Jan. 1, 2020, of esophageal cancer. He was 90. Larsen was named Most Valuable Player of the 1956 World Series by helping the New York Yankees win the title, then won another championship with the Yankees in 1958. His perfect game inspired catcher Yogi Berra to sprint from behind the plate and leap into Larsen's arms. Larsen died in hospice care in Hayden, Idaho.

Little Richard, the self-described king and queen of rock and roll, died of bone cancer on May 9. He was 87. Born Richard Wayne Penniman, Little Richard became internationally known for his 1950s songs, “Tutti Frutti” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.” His other hits include “Rip It Up,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Ready Teddy” and “Send Me Some Lovin’.” A Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, as well as a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Little Richard announced his retirement in 2013. He passed away at his family home in Tullahoma, Tennessee.

~Megan Trusdell


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