Kate Middleton suffers major setback after cancer diagnosis

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In 1981, then-Prince Charles’s private secretary Michael Colborne tried to prepare sacrificial lamb and the very inexperienced Lady Diana Spencer about the life that lay ahead: “You could get a diary for three years from now and write in it the things that you are going to have to be doing – Trooping the Colour, Ascot, Order of the Garter – and you’ll know where you’ll be and what date.”

A royal existence might be many things – grand, rarefied, far too much partridge – but it is also tediously, soul-crushingly predictable.

Colborne’s instruction was just as true several decades later when underemployed Chelsea resident Kate Middleton, owner of the borough’s most used treadmill and curling tongs, prepared to marry Prince William.

If the princess had gotten herself a diary in those heady pre-wedding days she could have plotted out those very same events – Trooping, Ascot blah blah blah – only she could have added one major red-letter outing of her own.

For years now, by and large, Kate has used the early months of each new year to debut some new big, bold bit of her marquee early childhood work.

Let us take a Princess Anne-approved canter down memory lane.

In January 2020, Kate launched the Five Big Questions survey, which saw 500,000 Brits take part in a landmark survey about the state of early childhood.

The beginning of 2021 proved a bit of a bugger thanks to the perfidious spread of a certain virus and the fact that someone had to pop round to sanitise the Crown Jewels.

Still in June of that year Kate was able to launch the Royal Foundation for Early Childhood. (William has no foundation of his own, it’s worth noting.)

In February 2022 the show was back on the road with the princess heading to Denmark for a two-day trip to learn about the Scandi nation’s world-leading approach. Did the world get to see a future Queen go down a slippery slide? Why indeedy and it was a delight.

Come February 2023 (are you noticing a pattern here?), the debut of the Foundation’s Shaping Us campaign, a UK-wide advertising and communications push to change the way that early childhood is understood.

March 2023 saw the Princess of Wales hit the City to make the Swinging D*cks look up from their Bloomberg terminals to take notice of the launch of her Early Years Business Taskforce, which includes NatWest bank, UK insurance giant Aviva, Ikea and the Lego Group.

Proving that a second class art history degree isn’t entirely decorative, also in March she penned a think piece for the prestigious Financial Times about the Task Force urging “we have to invest in early childhood now, as a down payment for our collective future.”

(In a break with the usual timing, November 2023 saw the first Shaping Us symposium, which brought together big names and hard-hitters from academia and politics. It’s between you and your god if you think symposium participants Sir Tony Blair and former conservative leader Lord William Hague constitute the ‘great’ or the ‘good’.)

So you can see, when it comes to the princess’s work, as the years passed, trails have been blazed, firsts racked up, and she has spent more and more of her time doing events with PhDs and boffins than Women’s Institute stalwarts and clammy regional Lord Lieutenants.

Therefore, by rights, given we are now in April, we should have had our regularly scheduled big Early Years event where I get a chance to do some eager cheerleading about Kate’s work. (The short version – Early Years sounds like a playgroup started by a village vicar’s wife using wooden blocks but is in fact a sweeping project focused on a UK-wide paradigm shift with the aim of fundamentally improving an entire generation’s mental health and emotional development.)

Except of course, 2024 has so far proven to be a year where rules, precedent and form have gone out the window as both Buckingham and Kensington Palaces try to work out how the hell to do royal-ing when two of their principals, as they are known, are battling cancer.

Late last month, watching Kate reveal on camera that she has cancer, the princess was a far paler, far more wan version of her usual chirpy self, the emotional, psychological and physical toll of not only her diagnosis but abdominal surgery clear.

A huge part of this weight, working out how “to explain everything to George, Charlotte and Louis in a way that is appropriate for them, and to reassure them that I am going to be OK”.

There is a lot and there is what the princess has gone through over the last 10 weeks.

And while it is far down on the list of worries, the terrible cherry on top of this cake is that the building momentum around Early Years has skittered to an abrupt halt.

Obviously the Foundation is still chuffing along and things have not ground to a complete standstill simply because Kate can’t be sent out to launch a report while done up in a purple power suit.

Also, even though Kate has been on sick leave, it does not sound like her out of office has entirely been on. In January, when the princess’s abdominal surgery was first announced (it would only be in the course of this that doctors would discover she had cancer), the Sunday Times’ royal editor Roya Nikkhah reported that Kate was set to “work from bed” and that “aides insist her work will not stall”.

But the impact of her surgery and her diagnosis on Early Years – something that Kate is deeply invested in and which has been really gaining steam – is inevitable.

And it has taken Kate such a hike to get here.

In the years after William and Kate wed, the princess proved a dab hand at buying nice hats and having the requisite babies and charming mid-tier diplomats at dull drinks receptions, forever clutching a glass of plain tap water.

However, it was only with 2016’s Heads Together, the joint mental health initiative set up with William and Prince Harry, and then the progression of her interest in mental health that led to Early Years that Kate really started to demonstrate that there is much more to her than might meet the eye.

Despite that tortoise-like start, as this year rolled round, the princess’s royal career was unlike any a princess or future Queen in history could boast – a woman on her way to making a difference for an entire generation.

Big, bold national change sure beats an HRH being poured out of the back of a Jag to officially open a Midlands aquatic centre when it comes to impact, hmm?

I still haven’t quite gotten my head around recent events – 2024, you see, was meant to be a nice steady year where no senior members of the royal family bolted for the exits or made right tits of themselves on the tele.

We should be enjoying a year where royal aides can tirelessly trot out naval metaphors (plain sailing, smooth seas, steady as she goes) to explain how things are going inside the palace walls.

But no. Not only does King Charles have cancer but the Princess of Wales does too, which coming hot on the heels of the erupting egos of the spares and the attendant fallout, has left the monarchy on the verge of being hobbled.

Given how long it has taken Kate to reach a point where she has this impressive professional beast of an outfit to her name, I think we owe it to her to at least acknowledge that down the list from the personal and family price of her diagnosis, is the massive professional setback she now faces too.

When she’s recovered and hale and hearty and her curling tongs are heating up ahead of another big symposium, the world – and that diary of hers – will be right here waiting.

Daniela Elser is a writer, editor and a royal commentator with more than 15 years’ experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.

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