An A-Team Star's Toughest Battle—Against the Specter of Cancer—is Waged in Secret and Alone

updated 10/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Most people, when confronted with the possibility of cancer, submit resignedly to the usual routine of tests, biopsies, operations and chemotherapy. Not Dirk Benedict, the blond and handsome star of NBC-TV's hit show The A-Team. After doctors diagnosed a tumor of the prostate, Benedict rejected conventional medical treatment—he didn't feel right about having doctors cut into his body—and opted instead for a severe macrobiotic diet that he credits with his recovery. (Macrobiotics is a way of life based on establishing mental and physical balance in the body through consumption of whole grains and vegetables. Most physicians consider such a diet to be unwise in cancer cases.) Until now, he kept the story of his illness from everyone, including his family and his professional associates.

Born and raised in White Sulphur Springs (pop. 1,400), Mont., where his father was a lawyer and his mother is a hospital bookkeeper, Benedict, 38, still considers Big Sky Country his home and rushes off to his log cabin there whenever his A-Team shooting schedule allows. A music major at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., Benedict alternated between acting and playing the trombone in a Dixieland jazz band following college. In 1972 he landed a part in Broadway's Butterflies Are Free opposite the late Gloria Swanson. Swanson and her husband, William Dufty, author of Sugar Blues, which blames sugar for all kinds of health problems, introduced Benedict to Boston-based macrobiotics expert Michio Kushi, who advised evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton during the months before her recent death from pancreatic cancer. Benedict says Kushi's teachings saved his life.

In a recent medical exam Benedict received a clean bill of health from Dr. Keith Block of Evanston, Ill., who says, "In my opinion, his recovery is remarkable. Considering his age, it's very unlikely the tumor was benign." Benedict decided to talk with Lois Armstrong about the several cross-country journeys and the diet, which he still follows religiously, that changed his life.

I used to eat like a horse. I'd have venison steak, eggs and pancakes for breakfast, meat loaf for lunch and a big steak, potatoes, salad and apple pie or a piece of cake for dinner. I ate what Hemingway wrote about. In college I was a 200-pound linebacker, but I had very bad arthritis in my knees, hips and hands, and headaches, hair loss and skin problems. Then in 1971, while I was in Sweden doing a movie, I quit eating meat and chicken, and within 10 days the pains in my knees stopped. In 1972 I began building my entire diet around grains, and by the end of 1974, I had stopped eating dairy foods.

When I gave up meat, I was floundering. I was reading books on diet and Eastern philosophy and medicine, pursuing alternative ways of caring for yourself but for strictly physical reasons. Then Gloria and Bill introduced me to the Oriental philosophy behind an alternate way of eating—macrobiotics. Yin and yang. The balance of opposing yet complementary forces. They saved me years of searching.

In May of 1975 I was told I had prostate trouble. I'd had pain and was passing blood. But I'd already changed my way of eating and I was thinking in much healthier terms. I was so pleased, having thick hair and no arthritis. My whole body had changed. I just didn't believe this could happen.

One doctor told me I had a tumor of the prostate, and then I went to another doctor in New York who said, "Yes. Definitely." He wanted to slap me right into the hospital. Bill Dufty had gone with me to the doctor. The way Bill figured it: "If they decide you have a problem, you're never going to get out of there. They'll lock you up and go to work." Bill was right. After the doctor gave me the bad news, some people came in with forms to fill out to check me into the hospital. I backed out of the office and down the hallway with doctors yelling after me. It was a scene right out of General Hospital.

Then I went to see Michio Kushi in Boston. I had met him three years before through Miss Swanson. He confirmed that I had a prostate tumor and said it was very important for me "to have good behavior" for the next four months by sticking with the diet. No cheating. I was not scared because I had been studying macrobiotics, and I believed completely in the principles behind it. Actually, I was excited by the adventure of it. Growing up in Montana, I learned: If the tractor breaks down, fix it. So I always have had that in my nature. It was dangerous, but I wanted to figure it out on my own.

I didn't know what I was in store for. I didn't know how painful the journey was going to be, how difficult. I know people who've tried macrobiotic treatment for awhile, and then just gone back to their cheesecakes. Everybody wants to be cured, but they want it to be easy, and they want it to be fast.

When I learned I had a tumor—I refused to be tested for malignancy—I weighed 180 pounds. When I came out of the mountains of New Hampshire six weeks later, I weighed 155. I went to stay in a friend's cabin because I didn't want any distractions, any temptations, anybody calling up to say, "Let's go have a bagel." Well, all hell broke loose. Some days I felt on top of the world, and other days I couldn't get out of bed. Sometimes I couldn't walk up the stairs, and sometimes I'd ride, run and chop wood for 24 hours.

I wore a swimsuit all the time. There was no one around and no full-length mirrors—so I was shocked when I put on a pair of pants and they fell right off. I continued to lose weight, down to 135 pounds, at which point there were people who wanted to get me into a hospital. I looked like exactly what I was, someone who was seriously ill.

I never did go into a hospital. Instead, I packed up my duffel bag and became a vagabond, traveling to Montana, Maine, California, New York City, Wisconsin, hitchhiking across the country once and driving across twice. I wrote short stories, a couple of screen treatments and a proposal for a TV series. Food was a problem, though. The only thing I could find to eat in restaurants was oatmeal. I'd ask for one bowl, then another, and finally I'd ask for it in a salad bowl. The rest of the time, I relied on a little cast-iron pot, cooking grains and vegetables in the open field.

I shouldn't have traveled. I should have stayed in one place and taken care of myself. My body was starving to death. I was not eating anything my body was used to. Because of the cancer fear, I was not cheating. Before that, I would have a little cheese, a little fish, bread, salad, but now all that was gone. I was eating only grains, so my body was living off my fat, and then my body was eating my muscles. It was taking the protein out of my muscles; in effect, I was consuming myself. I used to dream about hamburgers and steaks pleading with me to eat them, like a Walt Disney nightmare.

At one point, I was driving from L.A. to the East Coast, and I swung up to Montana to see my family. I probably shouldn't have done that. I had never told them of my condition. It doesn't matter now, but I couldn't say it then. When my mother, who works in a hospital, saw how thin I was, she pleaded with me to see a doctor. I left her and my sister sobbing in the backyard and went down the road to New York.

I began to feel I was getting better when the weight started coming back after about a year on the diet. I weighed 135 until the end of 1975, and then I went up to 148 halfway through 1976. I even stuck to the diet while I was doing Battlestar Galactica in 1978, but I was actually a little pudgy by then. It was at that point that I felt I was beginning to recover. About two months ago, I got my passing grade from Dr. Block after extensive blood tests. I don't have the tumor anymore.

With macrobiotics, you begin to sense what you want. Most mornings now I have Japanese miso soup—which is made with soybean paste, chunks of tofu, seaweed and scallions—and a big bowl of oatmeal. I take my own lunch to the studio—some kind of steamed vegetable. I also eat a lot of pasta and winter squashes. From the world of vegetables, there's almost nothing I don't eat. About 60 percent of my diet is grain, about 25 percent beans and another 15 percent side dishes like nuts, seeds, fruit and fish. That's about as wide as I go.

The thing this diet does give you is stamina and endurance. What it does not give you is tremendous bulk strength. It wouldn't be too good for Mr. T. Some weight-lifter friends of mine recently helped me move furniture. In the beginning they were stronger, but after two hours, I was still strong and they were pooped.

And my love life has changed. I appreciate a different kind of woman. I think the whole Playboy thing is the result of a meat-eating mentality. It's a gratification that is purely physical. It doesn't incorporate the emotional, the mental, the spiritual aspects of the female. But it doesn't have to be like that. I have a girlfriend now, Toni Hudson—she's in Cross Creek and next she's going to do a film in Texas with Sally Field—and she cooks and makes my lunch. Toni's a very secure individual in her female identity. She appreciates the maleness in me and finds it exciting rather than threatening. She eats this food too, and she's gone from thin to thinner. My weight now has stabilized at 155 to 160 pounds. At 5'11", I weigh what I weighed as a teenager.

Macrobiotics is not to be taken lightly. It's not like going to see Richard Simmons twice a week and bouncing around and eating your salad. If you want to try macrobiotics, get some literature on the subject and read it. If it makes sense, incorporate it to some extent. Maybe three times a week, instead of having meat, eat brown rice. The whole point of macrobiotics is to get control of your life, and then deal with it yourself. Life belongs to those who are willing to accept the responsibility for having it.

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