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April 5, 2013

Roger Ebert, 1942-2013

Daily Briefing

Roger Ebert—America's movie critic—died on Thursday after a prolonged, public battle with cancer that claimed his lower jaw. He was 70 years old.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic attained celebrity status in the 1980s and 90s through his popular syndicated film review programs, which included "At the Movies" and "Siskel and Ebert."

Ebert's public battle with cancer

In 2002, Ebert was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer. Although surgeons successfully removed the cancer in 2003, Ebert was then diagnosed with recurring salivary gland growths. Four-week radiation treatment following surgery to remove those glands permanently altered his voice.

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In 2006, Ebert underwent surgery to remove cancerous tissue near his right jaw. The procedure involved the removal of a section of his lower jaw, stripping him of his ability to speak, eat, and drink and forcing him to use a feeding tube. "In earlier years I would have found this idea horrifying," Ebert wrote in his journal for the Chicago Sun-Times, adding, "Not so much now that I need it to stay alive."

On April 3, Ebert revealed on his website that a painful fracture had uncovered new cancer and announced a "leave of presence." It was the last post he wrote. He died the next day in the hospital.

Ebert increased cancer awareness, reduced stigma

Throughout the many procedures, Ebert remained a prolific writer and openly discussed his condition and feelings on his website. His candidness about his struggle with illness and disfiguration earned him a new generation of admirers, the Sun-Times's Neil Steinberg writes.

In 2010, Ebert was profiled in Esquire with a full-page photograph of his altered face. "When I turned to it in the magazine, I got a jolt from the full-page photograph of my jaw drooping," Ebert wrote in a blog post after the magazine's publication, adding, "Not a lovely sight. But then I am not a lovely sight, and in a moment I thought, Well, what the hell. It's just as well it's out there. That's how I look, after all."

Last year, Ebert delivered a 20-minute TED Talk with the help of his wife, friends, and a computer voice program. He discussed the surgeries, finding his voice after losing his jaw, and the way the people around him responded to his illness.

According to the American Cancer Association's Tenbroeck Smith, Ebert's candid approach to cancer raised public awareness of the disease, helping to increase screening rates and decrease stigma.

Moreover, Ebert showed the world that cancer patients didn't need to back away from pursuing their dreams and leading full lives. "I think he broadened our understanding of cancer based on his incredible courage and incredible strength and genuine demeanor through this tough time," Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center CMO Michael Neuss told ABC News' Sydney Lupkin.

Neuss admits that he used to struggle during interactions with patients who have been disfigured by their diseases, noting people's instinct to look away out of politeness. "I think they like to be seen as the people they are inside the face of illness," Neuss says, adding, "I think [Ebert] helping us do that is important" (Lupkin, ABC News, 4/4; McMullen, ABC News, 4/4; Steinberg, Sun-Times, 4/5).

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