When actress Nancy Addison Altman started volunteering at New York City's Incarnation Children's Center in 1995, she had little in common with the young HIV-positive patients she befriended there. Most were abandoned, and many were weakened by illness. Altman—like her TV alter ego, spitfire attorney Jillian Coleridge Ryan on the 1975-89 daytime drama Ryan's Hope—had enjoyed a successful career and was full of life and energy. Only after she was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma 2½ years ago did she discover "a big parallel between me and those kids," Altman says. "We're fighting something, and we're determined to beat it."

It hasn't been easy. Since the initial diagnosis, the cancer has spread, and Altman, 55, who lives in Manhattan with her husband, TV executive Daniel Goldfarb, 57, endures terrible pain from both the disease and debilitating chemotherapy treatments. "She's a guerrilla fighter," says her friend and former Ryan's Hope costar Kate Mulgrew. Another Hope pal, Ilene Kristen, agrees. "Sometimes I feel Nancy should be really, really angry," she says, "but she just deals with it and recycles her energy."

That energy is channeled to help others. Altman, who volunteered at soup kitchens and hospitals throughout her acting career, first heard of the ICC in 1995, when she saw a public-service commercial on late-night TV. Her last soap, Loving, had been canceled, so she had time to spare. "It was like a big home," she says of the center, which opened in 1987. "So warm and so joyful."

Of course, there have also been moments of tremendous sorrow. In 1998, 6-year-old Tahara Taylor died in Altman's arms. "I was like a mother to her," says Altman, who has no children of her own. "There's still a piece of my heart missing."

Just after Tahara's death, Altman developed a persistent cough and began losing weight. Misdiagnosed three times, she went six months before undergoing the biopsy that would reveal the tumors in her adrenal gland and bronchial tubes. Chemotherapy and radiation followed, but the treatments did little to stop the cancer from spreading. The disease soon traveled to Altman's brain—where she developed lesions that affected her memory and balance—and then to her spine.

Despite the fatigue, nausea and numbness in her limbs brought on by the treatments she is still undergoing, Altman remains the ICC's guardian angel. She can no longer visit four times a week, as she once did, but she continues to organize fundraisers and solicit money. The $3 million she has already raised helped the ICC grow from a 21-bed clinic to a full-service medical facility for 120 outpatients. "Everybody's got to pay back," says Altman, who was honored for her work by the Robin Hood Foundation last December. "If you're fortunate enough to have a good life, you have to give back."

Growing up in suburban West Orange, N.J., the younger child of furrier George Altman and his wife, Adeline, a designer (both parents died in the 1980s, her father of cancer), Altman enjoyed a "typical childhood," she says, "ballet lessons, riding bicycles and making sand castles." After graduating from high school, she studied acting in Manhattan under the legendary Stella Adler. She had only a few Off-Broadway roles under her belt when, she was cast in CBS's Guiding Light in 1972. In her 23 years in soaps, Altman was twice nominated for a Daytime Emmy. "It was steady work," she says with a laugh.

Her personal life, though, would hardly qualify as melodrama. In 1981 Altman—whose first marriage, to Clinton Dunn, had ended in divorce six years earlier—met Goldfarb, then a producer for ABC's 20/20, at an ex-beau's party. "I didn't watch soaps and didn't know who she was, but she was just gorgeous," says Goldfarb. They married in 1982, and he recently quit work to spend more time with her.

Though the past two years have been physically devastating, Altman's spirit hasn't flagged. "When I'm in the hospital," she says, "the nurses say to visitors, 'Oh, you're here for the party room? Indeed, her friends come to celebrate her good cheer and courage. "I've watched her throughout this with a kind of amazement," says Mulgrew. "There's no way she's going gentle into that good night."

Jennifer Wulff
Debbie Seaman in New York City

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  • Debbie Seaman.