Doing Breast Cancer in Style
“All women get breast cancer!” That was my ex-husband, actor Charles Bronson, when he heard I’d been diagnosed. His second wife, Jill Ireland, had died from it just a few years before.
There’s no right way to handle breast cancer. Some people are saints, some fall apart, and others get angry. I decided early on I was going to do breast cancer in style.
I felt the lump Friday before Labor Day, 1994, at 5 o’clock, and of course, this Friday was followed by holidays on Monday and Tuesday. I couldn’t see a doctor for five days.
“How am I going to get through the next five days without panicking?” I stressed. Keeping it private made it worse, so I called everyone: “I have a lump.” This actually worked in my favor. I got good advice, comfort, and I discovered a few coping tools. An AA friend hand-delivered a cute, wooden “God box.” “Write each fear and put it in the box,” she instructed. “God will take them away.” Not being religious I scoffed, but by Sunday night I was scribbling down my panicky thoughts and shoving them in the box. When I awoke, I felt calmer, and then on, I listened when anyone had a suggestion.
When the diagnosis was confirmed, I entered denial. “I can’t have breast cancer,” I gasped to Dr. Susan Love, then Director of UCLA’s Revlon Breast Center. “I have plans!” Dr. Love smiled tolerantly, “Want to make God laugh? Make plans. You’ve got breast cancer—what plans did you make?”
Well, plenty: My house, trashed in the L.A. earthquake, needed gutting—while living in it. I had a string of holiday parties. And, I planned to watch the OJ trial! “This lump is really an inconvenience.”
“Can you fit a lumpectomy into your busy schedule?” Dr. Love asked.
“Only if I can get my hair and nails done first.”
Dr. Love hugged me. “Harriett, you’re high maintenance, but I like it.”
When they made Susan Love, they broke the mold. Knowing cancer can make people feel wildly out of control, she indulged many of my whims and let me pick treatment days and times.
Exerting a little control made me feel less of a victim.
My cancer treatments and house reconstruction of course started at the same time. When the construction crew put an ugly porta potty in my front yard, I told the supervisor (a handsome hunk, like Lucky Vanus in the Diet Coke commercial), “Look, I’ve got breast cancer and I simply cannot look out my window for the next six months and see that ugly thing.” I didn’t mind looking at him, but the porta potty had to go. He was a prince and replaced it with a color-coordinated “designer” version. It became the talk of the neighborhood—Men drove by to see the “designer toilet” and women to sneak a peek at “Lucky.”
Keeping my sense of humor made it easier, for me and others, and I always had slew of “funny cancer stories” to entertain friends. When I told the gay radiation technician he was the only man to see me naked that year, he rolled his eyes: “Harriett, you’ve got to get a life!”
Focusing on my style and looks helped too. Dr. Love said I’d likely gain weight and my hair would thin, so I drove into Beverly Hills and had Cristophe (he gave President Clinton the infamous $200 haircut) make me a wig. It looked much better than my own hair, so I started wearing it before mine even fell out.
I had six months of chemotherapy, 35 straight days of radiation, and 40 days of Neupogen shots, but I timed treatments to never miss a party, theater invitation, manicure or hair appointment (either for me or my wig!). At times I felt weak, but I never spent one day in bed. I always got up, got dressed, spied on “Lucky”, and went out.
Breast cancer is the pits, but doing it in style was how I got through a situation so totally beyond my control. At times I even had fun.
During an annual check-up, I asked Dr. Love how I’d know when I was cured. “You’ll know, for sure,” she said, “when you die of a stroke at 95.”
Dr. Love is my hero and, really, a rock star. I’m incredibly thankful to have had her as my guide through breast cancer. She was caring, honest, full of integrity, and she let me handle it my way—in style. It helped me trust her completely, and I simply followed her lead. If you’re going through breast cancer, this is the type of doctor you’re looking for.
Dr. Love has since moved from surgery to research, dedicating her life to eradicating breast cancer. Her foundation is pushing the envelope on research by getting the public/patient’s voice included in the process. I encourage you to join me in supporting her: Join the Dr. Love’s Army of Women (armyofwomen.org) and/or the Health of Women Study (healthofwomenstudy.org). I’m thankful someone like Dr. Susan Love is leading this charge. Together, we can eradicate this beast.
Not that I’m looking forward to it, but when the end comes, I hope they’ll say, “She went in style.”
Harriett Bronson is a former talk radio host and the author of three books, including Charlie & Me, an emotional memoir detailing her marriage to late-actor Charles Bronson.