Earlier this year, at the height of her career, Ann Jillian, 35, was struck with cancer, which resulted in the removal of both breasts. Although her showbiz break came with her 1979 Broadway debut in Sugar Babies, she'd been performing since the age of 4 and played Dainty June in the movie Gypsy when she was 12. In 1983-84, Jillian starred in TV's Jennifer Slept Here, and she can be seen in next season's revival of her first TV series, It's a Living. She has received Emmy nominations for her portrayal of Mae West in a 1982 TV movie and for her role in Ellis Island last year. She also appeared with Michael Keaton in Mr. Mom.
When her disease was diagnosed, Jillian was shooting a new miniseries, Alice in Wonderland, in which she plays the Red Queen. At her San Fernando Valley home she talked with senior writer John Stark about her life-threatening battle.
It was a new year and things couldn't have been going better. Or so I thought last January. My career was on a roll. People say that when your career takes off, so does your husband. Not true. I've been married to Andy Murcia for eight years. I met him when I was working in Chicago. He was a police sergeant moonlighting as a security officer at my hotel. Now he's my manager. A year and a half ago we plunked down our money from Mae Weston an Ozzie-and-Harriet-like house in the Valley. We'd been too busy to think about children, but that could come later.
I have never been one to neglect my health, including checkups and everything that goes along with them. I had never had a mammogram but there was no reason to. I did have a history of fibrocystic breasts—that is, benign cysts caused by hormone changes. But there was nothing ominous about that. Then last January, during a self-examination in the shower, I found a curiously hard lump in my left breast, about the size of a pea. My gynecologist ordered a mammogram. Since the tissue in both breasts was too dense to make a clear picture, an ultrasound test was suggested; that's where your breasts are pictured through water, using ultrasound waves. The results from these tests appeared to be benign. However, on my gynecologist's recommendation, I had the results sent to a Beverly Hills surgeon who deals predominantly with women's breast disorders. After examining me, he called in his partner, who is his father. Their experienced hands indicated to them that the lump was benign, but they could not make a 100 percent guarantee without a biopsy. They strongly advised me to have one. Being a person who likes choices, I decided to get a second opinion. I went to a breast center and had another mammogram and ultrasound. I had the results sent to my internist, who, until this time, had not been involved in the case.
She told me—and I stress this point—what I wanted to hear: that I could wait a couple of months before having the lump rechecked. That meant my life didn't have to stop, and I could fulfill my two Vegas commitments starting the next week. Vegas proved a wonderful experience—except for one thing. While wearing pushup bras in my costumes, I felt discomfort in my breasts. It was mostly in my right breast—not the left one—which, in the ultrasound, had shown no alarming signs. However, since the discomfort came coincidentally with my period, I tossed it off as being brought on by the menstrual cycle.
After Vegas I came home and resumed working out a lot. I love rich food—as do all hearty Lithuanians—and I have a slow metabolism. That spells fat, and in my showbiz dictionary fat means out of work. Thank God for Andy, an ex-Golden Glover who would later become my Rock of Gibraltar. Every morning he'd poke me to get my lazy limbs out of bed, until I got so tired of being poked I gave in. Luckily, I started to like exercising. After eight times around the neighborhood park, I'd go to a Nautilus gym and work out. One morning—March 25 to be exact—I had a day of reckoning. Ever since Vegas my breasts had remained firm, even when I was off my menstrual cycle. While at Nautilus, I lay down on my stomach to do some back leg lifts and was shocked to find I had difficulty pressing my breasts against the bench. My right breast felt like a pillow stuffed with old foam. I gasped and tried to calm myself down. All the way home my heart beat like a drum. I knew it wasn't cancer—it couldn't be, logically. It was my left breast that was being watched, not my right. From what I had read, cancer couldn't grow that quickly...could it? Well, I logicked myself out of calling my gynecologist. But, as I was soon to find out, cancer follows no logic.
The next night, while Andy was caressing me in bed, he felt the irregularity in my right breast. His hand froze and he asked, "What the hell is that?" and I said, "Don't worry, Andy, it's just glandular." I was trying to calm us both. I promised, though, that I would call my gynecologist the next day.
The next morning I stared at the phone for what seemed like hours. I now understand how sheer panic can paralyze you from performing such a simple task as picking up a receiver. I spent the entire morning doing chores around the house. Anything to avoid what I knew I had to do. Call it what you will—I call it a Godsend—a dear friend in San Antonio whose wife had been battling cancer for some time called Andy for a chat. Andy confided in him, and his friend said, "Get the biopsy and don't wait." Within five minutes I had an appointment with my gynecologist for Friday, two days away. That same afternoon I had my first rehearsal for Alice in Wonderland. That evening Andy and I celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary by going out for an Italian feast. Strange. All this happiness in the face of an impending tragedy.
The next day—Thursday, March 28—neither Andy nor I mentioned my problem or my appointment. We were too scared. I got up early to do my roadwork, running extra laps around the park, praying all the way that it wasn't cancer, and if it was, dear God, help me cope. On my way to my Nautilus workout I stopped the car at my [Catholic] church, St. Francis de Sales. Engraved in the wall by the door were these words: "The same Everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day. Either He will shield you from suffering or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace then and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings." So there it was, out of my hands. All I could do was take each step as it came.
That night Andy and I lay in bed staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep. We didn't say a word but we knew exactly what the other was thinking. We fell asleep holding each other.
Morning came. I got up and did my usual workout—I couldn't let this thing interrupt my schedule. Besides, it wasn't cancer. And if, God forbid, it was, it wasn't going to control me. At 10:30 I went to my gynecologist. I looked at her face as she felt my right breast. Her expression seemed to say, "Don't kid yourself, Annie." I suddenly felt as if I were starting to climb a ladder, and I knew in my bones that each rung would be another devastating blow. The gynecologist said I must have another mammogram, but the earliest appointment was the following Monday. More time to worry.
That weekend was endless hell. It was like the movie Alien. There was something growing in me faster than anyone knew. Andy was frustrated. Here was a man who had always been in control, saying to me, "I'm helpless. I don't know what to do for you, Babe. But I'll always be here for you."
Monday finally came. After the mammogram the doctor who gave it sat me down in his office. Despite his calm voice, his eyes gave him away. He had that look, as if to say, "I'm sorry." Kapow! I had moved another rung up the bad news ladder.
That night we went to see my surgeon. I will never forget his hands—gentle, blessed hands. Later, in his office, he sat behind his desk looking in the air, searching for the right delicate words. He said that in his and his partner's combined 60 years of practice, they had never witnessed such a rapid growth of cancer in the breast. To establish it was cancer, he recommended I have a biopsy on both breasts. Should the biopsy confirm his diagnosis, he asked if I was prepared for a mastectomy of the right breast.
Andy couldn't keep it in any longer; "What the hell do we do now!" he exploded, and began to sob. While we both broke down, the doctor said he recommended a modified radical mastectomy of the right breast, which means removing the entire breast and the lymph glands from under the right armpit. For the left breast, he recommended a lumpectomy, a less severe form of tumor removal in which the breast is left intact except for a possible indenture, which can be rectified by simple cosmetic surgery. We asked about a second opinion. The surgeon said it was fine with him, though he felt we'd be wasting valuable time. He assured us the only justification for such body altering is life over death.
When we left it was as if we were watching a movie, but we could not conceive we were the central figures. The next day old Andy located a highly respected breast center in Santa Monica. Soon I was being examined by doctors with strange futuristic gadgets. In one case my breasts were projected onto a TV screen. In the midst of my fear I did have to smile. This was the one and only time my breasts would ever be exposed on a screen. I was given yet another mammogram, an ultrasound and a chest X-ray. This doctor said he had found still another undetected growth in my left breast. He recommended a bilateral modified radical mastectomy—the removal of both breasts. I suddenly felt very irreverent and detached. Whoops, I thought, there goes No. 2! I better split while I still have most of me intact! Then he gave me the good news. He said the cancer seemed to be encapsulated, that there was no trace of growth in my lungs. "What I meant to say is, you are not going to die," he explained.
To die? I thought. To die? Honestly, for me death had never entered the picture. When I was 7, a close relative had had a mastectomy and she is still alive and vibrant today, nearly 30 years later. I had grown up with life after breast cancer, not death. I just assumed breast cancer wasn't fatal.
Two days later I had my biopsy. It only confirmed what we already knew. The next day I called Irwin Allen, the producer of Alice, to break the news. I was certain, for insurance reasons, they would have to replace me. I threw myself at Irwin's mercy. Work would have to be my therapy. If I was dropped, it would only confirm my fears that I would suffer further loss of employment. God bless Irwin who said, "I'm gonna roll the dice and take a chance with you, Annie." He said he'd shoot around me while I was gone and deal with the insurance companies.
The days before the operation were easy. Alice kept me occupied. But the nights were torture. I was about to lose my breasts, my most feminine attribute. I would stand in front of the mirror, look at myself and cry. I was thinking about what every woman facing a mastectomy must think about—of being a whole woman, of being able to give 100 percent of herself to her husband. I'd cry and then Andy would cry with me. But he was never crying for the loss of my breasts but out of sympathy for what I was going through. Still I'd ask myself, "Is he just being kind? Will he really love me when I'm different? And if he doesn't, how can I handle it?"
I got off work from Alice on Thursday, April 11, at 3 p.m. An hour later I was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in West Hollywood. I felt as if I were about to be savagely raped and there was nothing I could do about it. Andy, my mother, father, sister-in-law and her husband, and a dear friend, Jan McCormick, were there. At 6 p.m. I got a call from Betty Ford, thanks to Jeff Ballard, a young publicist whom I call my surrogate son. My jaw nearly hit the floor. Mrs. Ford said, "Oh, you poor dear, what you must be going through. God gives us unexpected challenges sometimes, but you'll get through it. It's all right to cry, but not for too long." That night Andy and I took Holy Communion. I had a picture of Jesus Christ next to my bed. Before going to sleep I turned to the picture and said, "You've suffered and I'll suffer too, if I have to. But I'm begging you, don't let me die."
Surgery lasted 5½ hours. I vaguely remember being wheeled out. My family was there and so was my friend Mary Beth Scala, a nurse who flew in from Chicago at a moment's notice to take care of me. She was incredible. She pulled me through. Andy took my hand and said, "Don't say a word, Babe. Just rest." A moment later he asked, "So how do you feel?" Despite my wooziness I felt myself chuckle. I slept the night through, peacefully. When I opened my eyes the next morning, I could see out the window. There it was, the Hollywood sign. And since I wasn't flying over it, I knew that I really was alive. I looked down at my chest, and though it was a little flatter than before, I heaved a sigh of relief. The worst was over—or so I thought.
Eleven days later I walked back onto the set of Alice, keeping my promise to Irwin. I really felt I had accomplished something. Love came from everywhere—more than 40,000 letters. The most moving were from women who had had breast cancer. They all told me to hang in there, that I would survive—they had. I got a card from a lovely Jewish couple who said they had a tree planted for me "in Israel, a country that is a survivor, like you." My Hollywood friends couldn't have been more generous—especially Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope, Don Rickles and Shirley Temple Black. Joan Rivers, true to herself, sent a card that cracked me up. It said, "Don't worry kid. I've been flat all my life and it's never stopped me."
Although I was flying high with wishes of good will, recovery is not easy. By mastectomy standards, my surgeon had done an artful job. Nevertheless, the first time I saw my scar was a shocker. I looked like a little girl again. It took me six weeks before I would let Andy see me. I used to dream that I was looking for something. What, I can't remember, but symbolically I was looking for my breasts.
Fortunately I was never in unbearable pain. My biggest adjustment was in my arms. When they removed my breasts, they took out my lymph glands under the arms. My underarms will always be numb. It takes great concentration and hard exercise to get back the movement in your arms. It hurts but it's terribly important. One day I was playing around in my garden, when a branch fell from a tree. I instinctively put up my left arm to catch it. I ran to Andy with my arms in stick-up position, screaming "Look what I've done!" For me, it was a major triumph.
A day doesn't go by that I'm not thankful I made that difficult phone call to my gynecologist. The point was driven home a few weeks after surgery when I went with Andy to the shopping mall to buy some makeup. An elderly couple recognized me. The gentleman came over and put his arms around me. He said, "God bless you. You're very brave to have done what you did." He started choking up and said, "My daughter chose not to have a mastectomy and died." That knocked the wind out of me. I cannot understand why someone would not choose life over the loss of a breast. I pray that every woman who reads this article is getting a checkup. Life is worth it.
I have decided against having breast reconstruction. I feel it would be another assault on my body. Now hold it—don't get excited. Let me explain. I am happy for any woman who has had a successful reconstruction. God bless her and her choice. However, I feel confident that my choice will be respected too. I prefer a prosthesis. They've done wonderful things with them today. They're no longer bulky or uncomfortable but feel like an extension.
If I thought the operation was the low point of my ordeal, I was wrong. The low point has been the chemotherapy treatments. Although the doctors have told me that, to the best of their knowledge, I am cancer free, I chose to have chemo. Maybe I didn't need it, but I've been told it's an insurance policy that does pay off. I opted for six months of treatment. Unfortunately chemo has horrible side effects—loss of hair and nausea. Some of these treatments have come during the filming of It's a Living. I haven't told anyone at work I'm doing it. I go during my lunch breaks—one day a week for two weeks, then three weeks off to recover for the next sessions. By the time I get home at night the side effects begin. I have severe nausea until 4 in the morning, but so far I've made it to the studio every day. Because of the chemo, I cannot bleach my hair. My brassy blond, Dutch boy haircut has been awful good to me, but now I look kinda punk—half blond, half who knows. That's a wig on the cover. Because of the chemo I am gaining weight due to the cortisone, which is one of the five chemicals injected into my body. I'm also having to eat more for stamina. Do I dare say I've gained, egads, 20 pounds? But I plan to be back to my fighting weight after October. You'll see me on the track, the one kicking up the dust.
Hey, I speak for all women who've had mastectomies when I say I'm as good as before. I still play tennis and have been told I can have children. And my love life is better than ever. Andy still chases me around the bedroom—and you can't fake that.
Cancer is not going to interfere with my career, either. It is slightly more of a struggle to look good. The cortisone makes your face puffy, so I use extra contour makeup—and suck my cheeks in. If I want to play a sexy role, I'll play a sexy role. You bet, I'd still love to have breasts—but let's face it, I've never seen a pair of breasts tap dance, belt out a song or play Lady Macbeth. I know that Hollywood loves cleavage. But I think Hollywood ultimately has to look to the people. And as long as people out there like me—and I'm blessed to have that acceptance—then Hollywood's just going to have to accept me the way I am.
- John Stark.