Public Lives and a Very Private Battle : Prominent Women Say fight Against Breat Cancer Gave Them New Strength to Face the Problems of Life

Times Staff Writers

When First Lady Nancy Reagan underwent a modified radical mastectomy early Saturday morning, she joined a small but growing group of women who, because of their prominence, have had to grapple publicly with what is usually a private struggle.

From Shirley Temple Black to Happy Rockefeller to Betty Ford, they have transformed their own battles against cancer into public awareness campaigns by candidly and openly discussing the pain of and emotional adjustment to the disfiguring surgery.

“Cancer is the great leveler,” said actress Jill Ireland, who lost her right breast to the disease three years ago and earlier this year wrote “Life Wish,” a best-selling autobiography about her ongoing battle with the disease.


“(Mrs. Reagan) may be in a more glamorous suite, surrounded by security,” Ireland said in an interview, “but that couldn’t make her any less frightened.”

Black, the one-time child film star whom many credit with making it acceptable for the famous to talk about their breast cancer, said that being a public figure can be a help when facing a crisis of such magnitude. In her experience, she said, “the people who were having the most difficult time were the ones who didn’t have anything to do and were feeling kind of sorry for themselves.”

But whatever the patient’s public profile, Black and other prominent breast cancer patients agreed in interviews Friday and Saturday, it is the personal battle that remains the most challenging.

“Nobody can really help you,” said Black. “It’s between God and you and your doctor and your spouse. It’s something you have to manage yourself and it’s not difficult, if you consider the alternative.”

To Jill Ireland, the terror of breast cancer begins “when you sit on that cold steel table with a little paper gown around you” waiting for word on the initial biopsy.

Although the First Lady’s biopsy was performed under general anesthesia and she did not learn the outcome until the mastectomy had been performed, Ireland said there is still terror in learning that the lump was malignant, and emotional trauma in the loss of a breast.


“I know right now,” she said, “that Mrs. Reagan is going to feel terrified.”

Nevertheless, Ireland believes “that 50% of the process of getting well is in the hands of the patient, and Mrs. Reagan, with her courage and spiritual strength, will not only survive but be personally empowered by this catastrophe.”

The 51-year-old actress, who is serving as honorary chairman for the American Cancer Society’s 1987-88 campaign, has never met the First Lady but would like to tell her, “Hang in there. Take a look at us. Take a look at the sisterhood around you who are living wonderful lives with one breast or no breasts.”

Unlike Mrs. Reagan, whose cancer apparently was confined to the seven-millimeter lesion that doctors removed along with her left breast and adjacent lymph nodes, Ireland’s cancer had spread to eight lymph nodes and, she said, is still not in remission.

“I was told I was a bad statistic,” said Ireland, who has been married for 19 years to actor Charles Bronson. “I was terrified, but I began to fight and, in the fight, I discovered so many things about myself. . . .”

Ireland, who portrays a First Lady of the United States in the recently released film “Assassination,” has no regrets, “none at all,” about telling everyone the details of her struggle with cancer, including the six months of chemotherapy that caused her hair to fall out.

When Ireland speaks publicly, she often says, “Hello. My name is Jill. I’m the girl who had everything, including cancer.”


It “never occurred” to her, she said, that her loss of a breast would affect her relationship with her husband. “And I don’t think it will occur to Mrs. Reagan, either. They have a very longstanding, close relationship. Losing a breast is a very small thing to give up for more time with someone you love.”

Rose Elizabeth Bird, 50, who last year lost her job as chief justice of the California Supreme Court when the voters failed to reconfirm her, said her mastectomy 10 years earlier helped her put defeat in perspective.

“You learn to live your life each day as if that is your life,” she said. “If you think about dying, you think very clearly about what you’re doing with your life each day. And the loss of the job is not the most important thing in your life.”

Bird, who was secretary of agriculture and services in the cabinet of Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. at the time she was diagnosed with cancer, recalled:

“When I had my mastectomy--I had a modified radical--I woke up at Stanford Hospital and someone gave me a copy of the (San Francisco) Chronicle and there was my picture and underneath it said, ‘Right Breast Removed.’ That to me was a little bit of a shock, although it was certainly accurate.

“At that time--I think it’s less true now--most people thought of it as a death sentence. When you did meet them, they would become quite solemn and very concerned.”


Reluctantly, at the urging of some doctors in Los Angeles, she began to speak publicly about her experience and “found it enormously rewarding.” She has had two subsequent bouts with cancer, the last in 1978 to remove a tiny cancerous growth under her right arm.

Bird does not discount the possible ties between stress and diet and cancer and has modified her eating habits, is exercising more and has begun meditation--”Some people call it prayer.” The latter is essential, she believes, “when you’re in public life and every day brings lots of issues and lots of problems.” For her, Bird said, cancer helped to “put things in perspective.” (She is devoting her time to lecturing and to writing a book, “A Sense of Justice,” for spring publication). “When you have to face the possibility of your own death, it forces you in a curious way to face your life. In the process, it gives you a kind of liberation.”

“My heart goes out to the Reagans,” she said, adding, “but they’re both strong people.”

Happy Rockefeller had both breasts removed in separate operations in 1974, the second while her husband, Nelson A. Rockefeller, was the vice president-designate.

Upon learning of Mrs. Reagan’s impending surgery, Mrs. Rockefeller, now 61, issued a statement through a spokesperson:

“It was 13 years ago that I was operated on,” she said, “and swift, early detection and action made it possible for me to have a full and rewarding life.”

More recently, in 1986, DeDe Robertson, the 60-year-old wife of presidential aspirant and television evangelist Pat Robertson, underwent a mastectomy after discovering a lump during a mammography conducted in a mobile medical unit at the Christian Broadcast Network’s Virginia Beach headquarters.


And Betty Ford, who several years later was to acknowledge to the world her problems with drugs and alcohol, was equally forthright in making public the details of her radical mastectomy for removal of her cancerous right breast in September, 1974, when she was First Lady.

Actress Ann Jillian, now on location in Toronto filming “The Ann Jillian Story,” scheduled for Jan. 4 on NBC, recalled how, the night before she underwent a bilateral modified radical mastectomy in April, 1985, she received an encouraging phone call from Ford. “My jaw dropped,” Jillian said. Ford told her, “You’ll get through it,” adding: “It’s all right to cry, but not for too long.”

Jillian, 36, whose upcoming TV movie deals with the emotional aftermath of her double mastectomy, said she was “really saddened” to learn Friday about Mrs. Reagan’s cancer. In Toronto, she said, “We took a moment out of our (filming) schedule. I thought it was appropriate that we all stop and send our positive prayers and good wishes her way.”

But Jillian, who has met Nancy Reagan and the President on several occasions, said she has a very positive feeling that Mrs. Reagan’s strength and assertiveness about herself and her family will help her through this crisis.

Reliving her own experience for the cameras has been painful, Jillian said, causing her to confront feelings that she had brushed aside by plunging into work--among them, that her husband of 10 years, Andy Murcia, was not the Rock of Gibraltar that he let on at the time of her crisis but a man “feeling quite helpless.”

“I really want (the film) to count for something,” she said, “to help somebody else get through what we went through. I’m not the star of this movie. The subject matter is the star. It’s a movie for all women, and all the men who love them.”


Breast cancer, acknowledged floppy-hatted, 74-year-old country comedienne Minnie Pearl, is “a great strain” on the husband of the victim.

But “I’m sure once he (President Reagan) finds out she’s all right, he will be confident she can handle it,” Pearl said, “just like she’s handled all the other things she’s handled, the assassination attempt, the criticism of him, his operations.”

Speaking by telephone from her Nashville home, Pearl (whose real name is Sarah Cannon) said she “was absolutely blown away” when she had to have both breasts removed in separate operations in 1985.

She was able to cope, she said, with the help of prayer and a supportive husband.

Breast cancer “isn’t fun,” said Pearl, who played a celebrity doubles tennis match six weeks after her second surgery, beating a team headed by John McEnroe.

But “this is a very strong woman,” she said of the 66-year-old First Lady. “This is a test for a woman, a very strenuous test. But you can survive. It’s amazing how quickly you forget as you move on in your life. You put it behind you.”

Pearl, who discovered her cancer during routine mammography, underwent plastic surgery to reconstruct both her breasts so she could continue to wear her many costumes. That option, she added, “is not for everyone.”


Elaine Crispen, press secretary to Mrs. Reagan, confirmed Friday that Mrs. Reagan was anxious to get the medical aspect of the problem dealt with before considering a plastic surgeon.

“Later on, she could probably have it (reconstructive surgery) done if she decides she wants it,” Crispen said. Regarding any fears Mrs. Reagan might have about her husband’s reaction to the surgery, Crispen said, “I bet that didn’t even cross her mind, how he was going to accept her.”

In the mid-’60s, famed chef Julia Child, now 75, had a cancerous breast removed. “In those days, there was no choice,” she said. “They just lopped it off. When I woke up, there I was, single-breasted.”

A Democrat who has been a guest at the Reagan White House, Child said the best advice she could offer Nancy Reagan would be to “get well as soon as possible and get right on with your life.”

Although she never really tried to keep her mastectomy a secret, Child said by telephone from her home in Cambridge, Mass., “I didn’t say anything about it until Shirley Temple (Black) came out. You’re not going to rush around and say, ‘Hey, I had my breast taken off!’ ”

Former child star Black, after undergoing a modified radical mastectomy of her left breast in 1972, held a press conference in her hospital room. Later, she divulged the details of her illness in an article in a national magazine in which she urged women who had avoided checkups out of fear to “leave the questions of beauty and vanity aside.”


Two weeks after her surgery, she was back at work as a member of the federal Council on Environmental Quality. Her surgery changed nothing, she said in a telephone interview Saturday from her Woodside home--”All I did was lose an old friend.”

Black, who earlier had been U.S. representative to the United Nations, went on to serve as U.S. ambassador to Ghana and U.S. chief of protocol.

Today, at 59, she speaks of the support of her husband of 37 years, businessman Charles Black. “If one has a strong, happy relationship prior to a traumatic event of this sort, that relationship will be strong and happy afterwards.

“I think in the Reagans’ case, with their long, long marriage and closeness, they’ll go on with their lives.”