PERCHED ON LINDA ELLERBEE'S DESK at her Lucky Duck Productions headquarters in Manhattan is, indeed, a lucky duck. She bought it at a hospital gift shop 12 years ago when, after a scare, she learned that she didn't have cancer. That little duck became a personal symbol for Ellerbee, then a correspondent for NBC, and she would rub its head before each of her broadcasts.
As talismans go, the duck seemed to have lost its powers when Ellerbee underwent a mammogram last year and learned that this time she had breast cancer. Now Ellerbee, 49, has survived the twin ordeals of mastectomy and chemotherapy and emerged with a reasonable prognosis for a long life. This week she is using her story as the linchpin of a Sept. 14 ABC special called The Other Epidemic: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Breast Cancer. "We are very candid on this show," says Ellerbee, a journalist with a reputation for leaving no punches unpulled. "We show you what a scar looks like and what reconstruction looks like. The show is about survivors," she adds, "but also about anger. We say, 'Look, most of us live, so get that lump checked.' But we also say, 'Look how many of us are dying. Raise your voice.' "
Before she could raise this public voice, Ellerbee had to face her cancer privately. That meant telling not only her family but also her 15 Lucky Duck staffers. "The boss has cancer, and we're going to deal with this openly," she announced. "I'll need your help." Explains Ellerbee: "I wasn't going to try to get through this alone. I wasn't going to try to pretend to be that brave." Still, says her business partner and beau of seven years, Rolfe Tessem, 41, "the truth is, she made it very easy; she didn't complain or feel sorry for herself."
Instead, Ellerbee went into what she describes as "extreme reporter mode," piling books on her desk and pumping for information everybody who knew anything about cancer. When it came time to choose between having a lumpectomy or a double mastectomy, Ellerbee didn't have to think long. "Forget my breasts," she told her doctor at Faulkner Hospital in Boston. "Save my life."
Preferring to have only Tessem with her in the hospital, the Texas-born Ellerbee, who has been married four times and has two children—Vanessa, 24, and Josh, 23, by her second husband, Van Veselka—told her friends and family to Slav clear. Vanessa, now a musician in Seattle, complied. But Josh, an aspiring writer who tends bar in Manhattan, showed up anyway, carting the family teddy bear, which gets passed around to whomever needs it the most. Her longtime friend and former NBC News Weekend and Overnight coanchor, Lloyd Dobyns, also ignored Ellerbee's edict and came up from North Carolina, where he writes. "He would walk into my room every morning and say, 'You look like shit,' " says Ellerbee. "Somehow that made me feel better."
She fell considerably better when doctors told Ellerbee that they had caught the cancer before it spread. Within 10 days she was back at work taping her Nickelodeon special on AIDS featuring Magic Johnson (which aired last year and won the Cable ACE award for best news program). "She was functioning so well," says producer Bob Brienza, "I wouldn't even think to say, 'Hey, are you feeling okay today?' "
Often the answer would have been no. Four months of chemotherapy look their toll: She felt nauseous and exhausted and temporarily lost her hair, eyelashes, eyebrows, even her fingernails and toenails. Other breast-cancer survivors offered practical coping tips. "Do your crying in the shower," said one, "because no one can see you and your face is red when you come out anyway." Typically, Ellerbee found more comfort in laughter. "There are funny things about cancer," she says. "Really there are." Like the time daughter Vanessa walked into her room moments after Ellerbee had, in fact, emerged from a shower. "There I was with no breasts and no hair," she recalls. "Vanessa looked at me and smiled and said, 'Momma, you look just like Buddha—only without the wisdom.' "
It also helped, Ellerbee says, that she qui I drinking more than four years ago. "One of the first things I thought when they diagnosed me was, 'Thank God I'm sober,' " she says. "But do you know what was harder than breast surgery and quitting drinking? Quitting smoking." In fact, Ellerbee not only quit smoking after the cancer diagnosis, she works out regularly and has lost 45 lbs. "I'm becoming so politically correct," she says, "I'm in vice deprivation."
The best news: Ellerbee's latest checkup shows that she is free of cancer. Now healthy of mind, body and company (her weekly Nick News W/5 is one of the hottest kids' shows around these days, having won the prestigious DuPont Award), Ellerbee is planning a Lifetime special on women and alcoholism. Says Ellerbee: "If this is the worst thing that happens to me in my life, I will be 50 grateful. I do work that I love, I'm in a stable relationship with a wonderful man, my kids are healthy, and we get along. So in many ways," she adds softly, "this has been the best year of my life."
TOBY KAHN in New York City
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