Words of Assurance for a Stricken First Lady

updated 11/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Actress Ann Jillian was filming the story of her personal battle with breast cancer for a TV movie when she learned that Nancy Reagan had just been diagnosed as having the same disease. "She's in the sisterhood now," Jillian said softly. Then she did two things. First she asked the cast and crew on the set of The Ann Jillian Story to join her in a prayer for the First Lady. Then the actress sent Nancy Reagan a telegram of support and encouragement—something more than 100,000 strangers have done for Jillian since she had her double mastectomy more than two years ago.

That is also what thousands of people have been doing for Nancy Reagan in the days since her breast cancer was detected and her left breast removed. Many of the well-wishers are women who have been through a similar trial. The "sisterhood" into which Nancy Reagan and Ann Jillian have been initiated has several hundred thousand members, among them a number of well-known women who have been willing to talk about an operation that was once discussed only in whispers. That day has passed, thanks partly to the clear-mindedness of women including Shirley Temple Black, Minnie Pearl, Betty Ford and Ellen Kingsley, a TV reporter in Washington, D.C., who made a documentary about her own breast-cancer ordeal. But the procedure is not wholly out of the shadows. Some women still put off breast examinations out of fear. Some husbands still react to a wife's loss of a breast with unconcealed shock or revulsion. On these pages four famous women tell how they—and their husbands—learned to deal with their mastectomies, and they offer some frank advice to anyone, in the White House or in the house next door, who must do the same.

Ann Jillian

From experience Ann Jillian believes that good will come of Nancy Reagan's trauma. "I know it is a painful situation," she says, "but history has shown that when anyone in the public eye is stricken with something, it saves lives." Though Jillian at first tried to ignore her own cancer when it was discovered 2½ years ago, she has since become a vigorous advocate of all the available ways of locating and diagnosing tumors in their early stages—through self-examination, routine checkups and mammograms. Many of the women who have written to her, she says, tell her that her efforts have helped save their lives.

As with Mrs. Reagan's, Jillian's cancer was found before it had spread, and she has been given a better than 90 percent chance that the cure is long-term. Nevertheless, says Jillian, it will take time for the First Lady to come to grips with her surgery. "There is an adjustment, both emotional and physical, that she will make—a major adjustment," says Jillian. "You are reminded of what happened every day—when you get up in the morning, when you get dressed, when you go to bed."

The success of any woman's adjustment, Jillian believes, depends largely on the support of her loved ones, particularly her husband. "Cancer is a family affair," she says. "It affects the family so profoundly that it makes us re-evaluate what we hold dearest. My own cancer set our whole family upside down with fear." For many nights before the operation she and her husband would cry together—she out of fear, she says, and he out of sympathy.

Onetime policeman Andy Murcia, who has been married to Jillian for 10 years and managed her career, was so deeply affected by his wife's illness that he is writing a book about breast cancer from the man's point of view. He was especially touched by one piece of TV footage showing President Reagan lugging a potted plant to Nancy in the hospital. "I felt sorry for him," Murcia says. "He's a simple guy, just like you and me. He may be the President of the United States, but at that moment he was a husband worried about his wife."

Murcia has some basic advice for any husband in the same situation. "If you don't know anything else to do, hold hands," he says. "It is so important that your wife continue to feel she's still everything to you that she was before the surgery. She has to look into your eyes and see exactly what she saw before." He also exhorts women to allow their mates to take part in their recovery. "Keep your husband involved," he says, "and let him see the results of the operation as soon as possible. You will just be reassured of his love that much sooner."

Jillian, who went back to work 11 days after her operation, also believes that "keeping a productive pace will keep Mrs. Reagan from weeping." But she suggests a little self-indulgence too. "I see such a strong woman," she says of the First Lady. "Her whole life revolves around being the strength of many around her—especially of her husband. But if she ever wanted to give in to being pampered and spoiled, this is the time to do it. She deserves it."

Betty Rollin

"I couldn't believe this was happening to me," Betty Rollin recalls. "I was in a state of high terror. I felt as if I was in a terrible dream." Rollin, a writer and a contributing correspondent for NBC News, had her left breast removed by a modified radical mastectomy in 1975. She described her emotions in her 1976 best-seller, First, You Cry. Writing the book was cathartic, but it did not put the experience behind her. Nine years after her operation, while visiting a New Orleans hospital to speak about the experience, Rollin asked to be examined with a new diagnostic machine the hospital had just installed. Although she had been pronounced free of cancer after her annual mammogram six months before, the new test showed a tumor in her right breast.

"It was a terrible way for it to happen," she remembers. "I was by myself in a strange city, and suddenly everybody gets quiet in the room." She flew home to New York, and her right breast was removed five days later.

"Having the world's greatest husband made my second mastectomy easier," says Rollin, 51, who has been married to Harold Edwards, a New York University mathematics professor, for eight years. "It was like the other shoe dropping. Harold married a one-breasted woman and wound up with a no-breasted woman. But he's made me feel like breasts are the most unimportant thing in the world. All we've ever been concerned about was the cancer part, not the breast loss."

As a result of her two operations, Rollin believes that men deal with mastectomies much more successfully than women sometimes think they do. Her husband agrees, though he sees room for improvement. "I think women overemphasize how important their breasts are," says Edwards. "I don't think men realize how much their wives need reassurance on that point."

Rollin admits that despite the perspective she had gained through her book, her second operation was also traumatic to her. For six months afterward she lived in fear that she would develop ovarian cancer, the pain of which had driven her mother to suicide. "If you come here any more often," her gynecologist finally told her, "people are going to start to talk." Now, Rollin says, she feels better than ever and sees a lesson in that. "I have a sense of well-being and gratitude," she says. "However bad you feel for a while, you wind up feeling good about being alive. If you have a big scare like this and you survive it, it makes you better at life. Ask anyone who's been through it, and they'll say the same thing."

These days Rollin doesn't even wear her prostheses most of the time. "I just go around looking like an 8-year-old," she says, laughing. "And looking on the bright side, I'm symmetrical now."

Julia Child

"It was the size of a lima bean," says Julia Child, describing the lump she found in her left breast in 1966. That's just the sort of imagery you might expect from PBS' irrepressible French Chef, but there was nothing casual about her reaction—or about society's attitude toward breast cancer at the time. "I knew of only two people who'd had mastectomies," Child says, "both of whom had died." Once the diagnosis was made, Child's only choice was a radical mastectomy, a procedure now infrequently performed, in which the entire breast, the adjacent lymph nodes and the chest muscle surrounding it are removed. "No doctor sat down with my husband and me and discussed our options," she says. "There were no options. They just lopped off the whole thing." As cavalier as she sounds now, Child admits that "it was a shock to wake up with one boobie gone. I was very sad and upset, looking at my shorn self. There I was, married, maimed, with one breast, sobbing in the bathtub. I guess it was self-pity—I was enjoying the sobbing, you know.

"Then I just got used to it. I realized, 'You damn fool! You had cancer and you're still alive. You're very lucky!' "

Child says the mastectomy was never a problem in her marriage and that the devotion of her husband, Paul, a retired foreign service officer, has never flagged. "I was very worried, naturally, as anyone would be if a surgeon was working on his beloved wife," says Paul. "But we love each other. I would be shocked by a man who would abandon his wife at such a time—I'd want to smash his nose."

If Child were younger and "having the breast business now," she says, she would have reconstructive surgery. Instead she began wearing "bra-stuffers"—her term for a prosthesis. Thus padded, she was back slaving over a hot stove for her fans within six weeks of the operation. Her advice to the President and Mrs. Reagan is characteristically straightforward: "Get back on the rails and get working."

Child has had a mammogram annually since her surgery, and she has remained cancer-free, and in that she also counts herself lucky. "It's easy enough for middle-class women who routinely see physicians," she says. "But I worry about the women living in the slums. What happens to them?" She obviously is not in the habit of fretting about herself. "Anyway," Child says, with the deep-throated laugh familiar to millions, "I've been single-breasted so long I think it's chic."

Jill Ireland

The wife for 19 years of movie tough guy Charles Bronson, actress Jill Ireland lost her right breast to cancer in 1984. Because malignancy had spread to the lymph nodes, her surgery was followed by six months of chemotherapy, as she later recounted in a book entitled Life Wish. Her ordeal was debilitating and frightening, and it led Ireland to reassess herself. "I seem to have let go of some vanities," she says, "and I've gotten down to a more basic me. I've just plowed through three years of life with one breast, and it has been very pleasant."

Ireland believes that after any treatment like hers, recovery is up to the patient. Lecturing frequently, she encourages every woman adjusting to mastectomy to "think of yourself and be happy, make the most of your life and put yourself first. And another thing I've discovered in the past few years: Don't be frightened of stress. People tell you stress can make you ill, and I believe that. But once it strikes, you don't have to be frightened of it anymore. There are lots of ways to deal with stress. For me, meditation works—and taking extra time to do something that makes me happy. It relieves some of those fists we keep clenched up inside. When I find myself gulping a sandwich, I say to myself, 'Wait a minute. Slow down. You can take 10 minutes to savor what you're eating.' Little things like that. Sometimes I just unplug the telephone or sit in a warm tub for 15 minutes. Solitude is very important to me."

Ireland believes that Nancy Reagan, "with her courage and spiritual strength, will be empowered by this catastrophe. In one way she is very lucky that her husband has also had cancer because he can understand her fear. It's got to be a great help. You feel so isolated, and no matter how much a husband loves you, if he hasn't had a similar experience he can't really know what you're going through." Unlike the First Lady, who could have chosen a simple lumpectomy instead of a modified radical mastectomy, Ireland had no choice because her cancer had spread too far. She refuses to question Nancy's decision because she regards it as a personal choice. "But I will say this," Ireland observes. "In taking off her entire breast instead of trying to save it, she is actually saying a great deal. She's saying, 'Hey, man—woman—it's not that important. A breast does not make me who I am.' That decision itself is going to help other women."

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