Gene Wilder, who died this week at 83, kept his Alzheimer’s disease secret from the public. He didn’t want to worry or upset his fans, especially the young children who knew him from Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. But for the last quarter century, Wilder very publicly devoted himself to raising awareness of ovarian cancer, the illness that had claimed his third wife, Saturday Night Live comedian Gilda Radner. Wilder felt that the actress’ painful illness and early death were preventable. Radner was misdiagnosed again and again, prolonging her suffering and delaying her treatment. Over at Medium, in the wake of Wilder’s death, Abby Norman has penned a poignant, heartbreaking account of the couple’s whirlwind five-year marriage and the devastating effect Radner’s cancer had on both of their lives. Considering how eminently lovable both Radner and Wilder were, this graphic but well-written article is not an easy read. But, ultimately, this is a love story. And there’s an important cautionary element to the article as well: Ignorance can be deadly.
Wilder and Radner, who met on the set of 1982’s Hanky Panky, married in 1984 and originally attempted to have a child together. Radner’s myriad health problems made that difficult, however, and the couple explored such options as in vitro fertilization. They never conceived a child, and Radner began experiencing a host of distressing symptoms, including drowsiness and fatigue. Things really started to take a turn for the worse during the making of the 1986 comedy Haunted Honeymoon, which would end up being the last film Radner would ever make. The comedian went from doctor to doctor without ever getting a proper diagnosis of her condition. One thought it was Epstein-Barr. Another thought it was depression. A third thought it was simply constipation and plied Radner with laxatives. Through it all, Radner became weaker, and Wilder become more and more concerned.
Eventually, Radner received an accurate diagnosis of ovarian cancer. She died of the disease in 1989. “The fact is, Gilda didn’t have to die,” Wilder later lamented. “But I was ignorant. Gilda was ignorant. The doctor was ignorant.” For the rest of his life, through his work with the nonprofit organization Gilda’s Club, Wilder strove to ensure that the rest of the world would not be ignorant when it came to ovarian cancer.