Richard Dawson got cancer diagnosis only three weeks before death

Richard Dawson, the “Hogan’s Heroes” actor and original “Family Feud” host who died Saturday from complications of esophageal cancer, learned of his diagnosis only three weeks before his death, according to his children.

“Luckily, he didn’t have to go through all the bad treatments and stuff,” son Gary told “Access Hollywood” on Monday, elaborating on a comment made to The Times over the weekend. “He had a heart attack and went in the hospital. He was actually going in for his first radiation treatment when he had a heart attack.”

Daughter Shannon said there were no signs before the diagnosis. “He just thought he had heartburn and then he found out he had Stage 4 esophageal cancer,” she told the show.

The lack of a battle against cancer made for what was perhaps a fitting exit for a man who made his game-show mark by smooching female “Family Feud” contestants full on the lips, a tradition that evolved from an attempt to calm one very nervous woman.


“The way he was on the game show was the way he was in real life,” Gary Dawson told The Times’ Greg Braxton over the weekend. “He was always rooting for people — he not only wanted people to win, but to have a comfortable, great experience.”

And the end of life is not always comfortable for people with esophageal cancer. Writer Christopher Hitchens, who succumbed to the disease late last year, chronicled his struggles – presumably the “bad treatments” to which Gary Dawson referred – in graphic detail in a series of Vanity Fair essays.

“[O]ne thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings,” Hitchens wrote in setting the stage for parts of his brutal story. “And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that ‘Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’”

Though esophageal cancer is rare, rates have been on the rise in recent decades in the U.S., according to The Times’ Health section, which noted a while back that the disease’s low survival rates are due in part to late-stage diagnosis. The Mayo Clinic website says early esophageal cancer usually presents no signs or symptoms.

In addition to Gary and Shannon, Dawson is survived by another son, Mark; his second wife, Gretchen, who is Shannon’s mom; and four grandchildren. Dawson was previously married to actress Diana Dors, the mother of Gary and Mark.


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