Broadway's Former 'annie' Scores Another Triumph by Overcoming Leukemia

updated 05/03/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/03/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

She has appeared in more than 50 TV commercials, made her movie debut as a 7-year-old extra in The Godfather, and in 1978 began a sparkling year on Broadway in the title role of Annie. If not a megastar, Shelley Bruce at least seemed off to a good start Then last October doctors detected in her symptoms of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common of all childhood cancers. Suddenly finding herself among the 23,500 Americans who each year face the chilling diagnosis of leukemia, Shelley entered Manhattan's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for chemotherapy, radiation treatments and a series of tests that tried both her stamina and her courage. Six weeks later doctors pronounced her cancer in complete remission and sent the young actress home to East Rutherford, N.J., where her father, Bruce Merklingbaus, is the sales manager for a plastics company and her mother, Marge, is a children's talent agency manager. (Shelley's stage name is derived from her given name, Michelle, and her father's first name.) While being tutored at borne, Shelley, now 16, spoke to PEOPLE'S Richard K. Rein about the drama she faced offstage.

Before I really knew what was going on, my first thought was to associate leukemia with cancer and then associate cancer with death. But the more you find out about leukemia, the more you realize that, yes, it is bad, but not as bad as it seems at first.

I felt the first symptoms in the beginning of October. I didn't feel well in my first class at school, and a girlfriend walked me down to the nurse. I had a low-grade fever, about 100.8, and the nurse sent me home. The next day I was fine, but the day after that I had a fever again. I went to a doctor who did a little finger-stick blood test and found my hemoglobin was low. I was also real tired and had a shortness of breath. That was unusual. I'm normally so hyper that I run all over the place. But now I would just sit and do a puzzle for a half hour and then lie down and watch television. I figured maybe it was my low hemoglobin, so I went back to the doctor.

It was then that she tested for mononucleosis. She had seen one or two abnormal cells that could have been caused by a virus. Four days later, when she found more abnormal cells, she called my mother. The doctor said she thought it was leukemia and that she had already made an appointment for me the next day at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. That night I didn't sleep more than a half hour. I was just basically hysterical.

I was admitted that first day and didn't come out until 42 days later. I didn't talk on the phone the first week and a half because I couldn't talk. I couldn't say the word leukemia. I literally had trouble saying it because it's cancer and it sounds so bad. Then after a few days I told myself, "I know I have to be here, I know everything is going to be all right, and I'm going to have a positive outlook." My mother stayed with me the whole time. My father and brother and grandparents came every night and did a good job of keeping up my spirits. The doctors were encouraging and also realistic. They told me everything I wanted to know, and if I didn't understand something at first, they would sit down and explain it.

The first day there I got a bone marrow test and the second day a spinal tap. The bone marrow is the center of the bone where all the blood cells are made. Even though leukemia cells may not be in your blood, your bone marrow could be full of them. To do the test, they inject a large-bore needle into your hipbone and withdraw the fluid from the marrow. For me, the first bone marrow test was really hard. It took eight or nine minutes because they had to withdraw four vials of the fluid. I guess I just tensed up, and like anything else, it's easier if you're relaxed. I had no trouble with the other bone tests; they only needed a small amount of fluid, and it took only about 10 seconds.

For the spinal tap, they make you curl up so that the spaces between the bones in your spine open up. They put a needle in between the bones to withdraw the fluid and then inject medicine through the same needle. The fluid they withdraw is the fluid that surrounds your spinal column and brain, and they keep a check on it to make sure that leukemia cells aren't in the central nervous system. I worked with a doctor on self-hypnosis. I would picture some kind of scenery I was comfortable in and basically just keep my mind on that. I pictured a pool of water with the sunlight and the steam coming off it, and the steam was warm and relaxing. It was very, very effective, and I still use it at different times, whether I'm getting a bone marrow test or medication.

Because I came into the hospital with a slight fever, I was on antibiotics around the clock. I also received chemotherapy through shots and orally, and later I received radiation treatments to the head, 10 treatments in 10 days. I was lucky, and I really didn't get any of the bad side effects. The pills I took in the beginning did cause a form of diabetes, so I had to take insulin shots until they regulated it. My hair thinned out a little, but I had a really thick head of hair to begin with, and it grew right back. A lot of people who came to see me expected me to be lying there in bed looking very bad. They were surprised to see me up and around and walking. Grandma even wanted to take me home and put me on chicken soup!

Some of the kids there weren't so lucky and suffered bruises and were black and blue. There are some who leave because there's nothing more the hospital can do for them, and they're going to die. I had never been close to death before. But everyone there is handpicked for the jobs they do—the doctors, nurses, pharmacists—and when you get upset, they're right there. One night, after I realized I hadn't been outside at all for a month, it really hit me. I just got angry and depressed and really went crazy. The doctor spent about 45 minutes with me and said that he was really proud I had lasted that long without cracking. The next day I was fine. It was a relief to get that off my chest.

If all this had happened to me 20 years ago, I probably wouldn't have survived. In those days the life expectancy of a child with acute lymphoblastic leukemia was three to six months. Today they talk about a 65 to 75 percent cure rate, and of those who live five years or more after it's diagnosed, about 90 to 95 percent go on to live a normal life. Of course, the doctors also tell you that for any one person, the chance of survival is either zero or 100 percent. There's no other way to be than optimistic; if you think too much about it, you go crazy.

Right now I'm in full remission. I got a spinal tap once a week for the first four weeks I was out of the hospital, and I have to have bone marrow tests every three months for the next 12 to 18 months. Everything from here on is basically preventive, and my main chemotherapy is just two pills every night before bedtime. The doctors want me to stay away from places where I might catch bacteria, and for the next two years I can't go out and bake in the sun the way I used to because it might interfere with the chemotherapy.

People ask me how I've changed. I know I have a lot more patience, and I guess I appreciate things more. Support from my friends and family was very important. I have known Andrea McArdle since I was 7 or 8. She was at the first audition I ever went on. While I was in the hospital she was appearing at the St. Regis Hotel, and she visited me every day. She spent her birthday and Thanksgiving with me at the hospital, and her mother wrote every day. I received more than 600 letters in all, some from kids who had gotten leukemia when they were my age or younger. One of the letters was very special. It was from a mother whose boy died from leukemia at the age of 4, and his favorite song had been The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow from Annie. I still don't know exactly what I will say when I write back.

I think the biggest difference in me is that I'm not frightened anymore. At first I didn't know if I could go through with all the treatments. I remember one of my girlfriends had cancer, and after coming back from seeing her, I would wonder if I could handle the problem if I ever got it. Well, I found out. I got it, and I handled it.

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