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Jill Ireland: A Woman of Courage

by Sue Frederick

For over two decades, celebrities have entrusted Coping® to tell the world about their personal experience with cancer. We are proud to present this exclusive interview from our archives and hope that it will inspire and encourage all who read it. This article was originally published in Coping with Cancer magazine, May/June 1988.

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

(Photos by David L. Cornwell/Cope)

Jill Ireland isn't crazy about interviews with the media. Curled up on the couch at her Malibu beach cottage, half hidden in her flowing, white beach garb, she's quiet, reflective and slightly too quick to answer the difficult questions.

For Ireland, this is a time of turning inward from a life that's been spent on stage, in front of a camera and at home as a mother. Indeed, the introspection is vital as she recovers from breast cancer.

The 52-year-old British-born actress has traveled a long road since the 1960s, when her beauty and cocky charm won her appearances in The Man From U.N.C.L.E television series, as well as a continuing role as Mr. Spock's love interest in Star Trek.

Ireland dropped from sight in the 1970s when she gave up her career to raise seven children with husband Charles Bronson and travel around Europe appearing in his films. But now, nearly 20 years later, she is back in the public eye, a woman with a cause.

Though she is still dignified and powerful when "on stage" as a speaker for the American Cancer Society, there are other moments when her vulnerability is painfully clear, especially while discussing her mastectomy: "I feel that my heart has been exposed by it. I've lost my insulation."

"When you give up hope, every cell in your body gives up hope. When you're happy, every cell in your body is happy."
- Jill Ireland's advice to patients

For instance, she feels especially vulnerable after learning that a friend who also was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984 is now in the hospital with a brain tumor.

After saying this, Ireland strokes her German Shepherd and quickly changes the mood by sending her secretary out for frozen yogurt with green crunchies. Although it's been four years since the day she dropped in to see her doctor for a check-up that ultimately led to a radical mastectomy and six months of chemotherapy, she still battles the haunting fear of recurrence, as all cancer patients do.

Fighting back
Ireland has decided not to waste time being afraid. Instead, she has devoted herself to helping other women fight cancer, too.

Her 1987 book Life Wish documents her cancer battle so honestly that several doctors now recommend it to their recently diagnosed patients.

As the 1988 American Cancer Society's Honorary National Crusade Chairperson, she's made numerous appearances to share her story and lobby Congress to have Medicare pay for mammograms.

As she told the U.S. Senate Committee of Labor and Human Resources in January: "A year ago, I had a lumpectomy in my left breast. It was a small, one-day procedure, leaving only a small invisible scar. That, compared to the brutal slash of the surgeon's knife on my right side, only serves to urge me to speak out today for your mothers, sisters, daughters and wives."

In March, she received the ACS Courage Award from President Reagan for "illustrating the triumph of the human spirit in the face of the threat of cancer."

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

Inner strength: Planning to live her life well.

Ireland also talks with three or four cancer patients a day on the phone to offer personal encouragement. "You can't give up hope," she says to one newly diagnosed woman. "When you give up hope, every cell in your body gives up hope. When you're happy, every cell in your body is happy."

But the disease still strikes terror in the 125,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer in this country each year - even though the prognosis is less gloomy than it was 20 years ago when Ireland would've been given a less-than-20% chance of surviving five years. Now, with aggressive chemotherapy, her chances of making it past five years stands at 50%, and she plans to hit that mark next summer.

Not everyone will win the battle. The disease will kill some 41,000 women this year, even though it's 85% curable if detected early and treated aggressively. And mammograms are the key to early detection.

Beverly Hills surgeon Dr. Mitchell Karlin, who discovered Ireland's lump, says: "By the time a patient finds a lump, the cancer has been growing in her body for well over a year, and over 75 of these women are dead within 15 years," he says. "Mammograms pick it up before it can be felt and are absolutely the foremost step we can take to control this disease."

In Ireland's case, by the time her malignancy was discovered, she needed a radical mastectomy and doctors discovered cancer in eight lymph nodes.

Says Karlin, "If you have more than four lymph nodes involved, there's reason to have more concern than if there are less than four. But her will is strong enough, thank God, that she's coping well. She has her head on straight and has a great state of mind."

"I feel like I barely escaped with my life," Ireland quietly says. "The worst moment was when I thought I wouldn't see my daughter (Zuleika) grow up.

"I knew I couldn't allow that to happen. But at times, I was so ill, I believed that if I closed my eyes and stopped concentrating, I would die."

Her oncologist at Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Dr. Michael Van Scoy Mosher, says Ireland's determination played a big role in her recovery.

"Jill's the best, the most genuine warm honest person. She faced her illness straightforwardly," he says. "She wanted to know the truth. Her strength and courage were incredible. She's not a complainer. She thought about it, made a commitment to the treatment, and stuck to it."

Ireland went through six months of debilitating chemotherapy and then wrote her story as honestly as she could in Life Wish, which also describes her explorations into alternative treatments like homeopathy and visualization. She also delves into the stress the illness put on her 20-year marriage to Bronson.

"I wanted the man I loved to be the one who saved me, helped me, picked me up, babied me, listened to the outpouring of rage and grief," she wrote. "But he just couldn't, at least not in the way I needed. I never doubted Charlie loved me, but it seemed too difficult for him to accept the fact that my life was in jeopardy. After all, I was younger. I believed he had always thought he would die first."

Mostly, Life Wish marks a turning point in Ireland's life, from actress to writer and cancer spokesperson.

Relaxing in her beach retreat with its crowded book shelves, computer, and four-poster bed with ocean view - Ireland also has a large home in the Malibu hills and two horse ranches - she says again: "It doesn't seem fair to me that someone like myself, who can afford it, can get a mammogram and others can't. If it weren't for that mammogram, I wouldn't be here."

And there are many reasons why Ireland wants to be here, including her husband and children. She says her marriage to Bronson has weathered the ordeal: "Cancer brings out the best and the worst in a relationship, simply because it's stress. And that's what stress does. I'm still married and it's been four years. But losing a breast has not been the stress. A breast is a small price to pay for a life.

"In fact, if you lose a husband because you've lost one of your fat deposits, well, you're better off without him. I've heard of so many men walking out when their wives are diagnosed with breast cancer. Do these men look at their wives as cars missing a headlight, or as a possession that's gone haywire and should be replaced? What are the vows we take?"

Compared with the rough times the Bronson family has weathered in the last four years, Ireland's life before that seems charmed. Her best friend of 20 years, make-up artist Alan Marshall, often called her "the empress," and that title seems most accurate.

Ireland grew up in a London suburb, the oldest of two children. Her father managed a chain of grocery stores, and her mother, who loved dance and music, sent her to dance classes beginning at age 4.

Ireland took to it quickly and at 12, she was accepted by a dancing and acting school and went on to perform with the London West End Repertory. When she was 18, a solo dance in the movie Oh, Rosalinda led to a film contract with the J. Arthur Rank Organization. There, she made 16 films and met first husband, actor David McCallum.

In 1962, she'd been married to McCallum for seven years and had three sons when she met Bronson, who was filming The Great Escape with McCallum. Ireland recalls that it was "love at first sight." They married six years later in 1968, one year after her divorce from McCallum.

The couple won custody of Ireland's three sons and two of Bronson's children from a previous marriage. She gave up her career to keep the family together and traveled through Europe with five kids in tow, acting in Bronson movies like Violent City, Breakout and Hard Times.

"We did three films a year," she recalls. "It was like a traveling circus." In one year, the family lived in France, Italy and Turkey. In 1972, Zuleika was born.

The year before Ireland's diagnosis was very difficult. Her father suffered a heart attack and then a stroke. Her brother developed a brain tumor, and Bronson's brother died suddenly. A close friend, Hilary Holden, also died, and Ireland adopted her teenage daughter, Katrina.

Then, one morning in July of 1984, a routine check-up revealed Ireland's breast cancer.

"At the instant I heard these fateful words, something in me kicked over," she says. "It was as if a switch had been thrown. I felt myself gather all my forces and begin to fight."

That fight included some intense soul-searching and an examination of the events that led to her illness. She now believes stress helped bring on her cancer, perhaps by weakening her immune system. Her work with Dr. O. Carl Simonton - a pioneer in espousing the role of mind and emotions in health - and holistic counselor Sue Colin helped her sort out these ideas and make changes.

Simonton, author of Getting Well Again, helped Ireland look honestly at her life. As she remembers, "Before my surgery, I had depleted my system, using up more and more energy from my quota, until finally I was using energy constantly, stressing myself, ignoring my need to replenish."

Her family physician of 22 years, Dr. Raymond Weston, says Ireland "carried the problems of lots of people in her heart. She has done extraordinary things for other people. Every time I think about how she adopted Katrina, how many people do you know of who that? ... It reaffirms that there are decent people in the world."

After counseling, Ireland decided to sell her 12-bedroom Bel Air home and buy a smaller, easier-to-run home in the Malibu hills. She got help to run her Zuleika Farms Horse Ranch, where she had bred and trained horses since the early 1970s.

Ireland also decided that acting was not it anymore. She briefly reentered the film world to co-produce Murphy's Law in 1985, and she co-starred in Assassination in 1986. But she vowed she'd spend the rest of her time writing and helping other cancer patients.

"Now, I see myself mostly as a writer, sitting in my beach house alone," she explains. "I've done acting and family. I'm mostly in my own skin now. I'm no longer on radar-control, watching who's going where and when. With such a large family as mine, someone had to be on radar control all of the time."

And most importantly, after her diagnosis, Ireland examined her life-long relationship to physical ailments: "I always did illnesses rather well. I was conditioned from childhood when I was 10 months old and had Pinkus' disease [a blood disease] and was put into a glass case and left there for a long time. For two months, nobody touched me."

Indeed, friends had often praised her graceful recoveries from injuries suffered in horseback-riding mishaps and car accidents, including three in one year. Another time, she almost hemorrhaged to death after a miscarriage in Europe.

As the self-exploration helped her gather inner strength to fight cancer, Ireland underwent chemotherapy treatments, changed her diet, took vitamin supplements, meditated on white blood cells destroying her cancer, collected quartz crystals to help her heal, and visited a homeopathic doctor who treated her on his electronic, low-frequency magnetic wave table and gave her bottles of electrically charged water.

Ireland's oncologist, Van Scoy Mosher, didn't discourage her.

"She did many alternatives, but she saw them as adjuncts to conventional treatments," he says. "There was criticism of her book out here because people said it encouraged patients to try alternatives. But I think she made it clear that those alternative treatments are fine and you can do them.

"But you also need your conventional ones. I think it was a combination of her attitude, her decision to overcome the illness, and the conventional treatments that caused her to do so well. But the alternatives bolstered her confidence and gave her a sense of control, which she needed."

Ireland says, "I don't know what cured me. I tell others to take their chemo and radiation and do their meditations. These alternatives helped me to take some control of the situation and not feel like a victim."

However, Dr. Raymond Weston, Ireland's family physician who introduced her to the Simonton literature, wasn't pleased with her openness about other unconventional treatments.

"I've known Jill for 22 years, and she's an extraordinary lady," he explains. "I've never seen her do anything that would harm another person. She has infinite concern for the well-being of others.

"But I was upset about her writing about those bullshit methods that are unsupported by any hard scientific data. It gives other people permission to try those things. It opens up quackery, especially that table treatment. It's like what happened to Steve McQueen. He was paying $5,000 a treatment in Tijuana and doing so well that he died. It's terrible stuff, terrible. They take advantage of the desperate position some people are in."

Irving Rimer, a spokesman for the ACS says even though there's no scientific evidence that one's emotions affect the course of a disease, the ACS does believe that one's attitude can play a role.

"Jill wanted to feel in control of her body, and those things helped her feel that way," he says. "She demonstrated the value of totality of treatment; she maintained her conventional treatments as well."

Her surgeon, Karlin, agrees: "I had no objections to her use of alternatives as long as she went along with standard treatments, too. Her book was a marvelous piece of work. She bared her soul. She really exposed herself to the public in an effort to be helpful, and many people have gotten strength from her story."

Everyone agrees on one thing: Ireland is a fighter and her spirit, as much as any treatment, contributed to her recovery. Van Scoy Mosher recalls, "Her chemotherapy treatment was very difficult, with lots of problems, but she never brought up the idea of stopping it. She was committed to doing it. Jill is very, very strong."

"Cancer brings out the best and the worst in a relationship, simply because it's stress. And that's what stress does. I'm still married and it's been four years."

Ireland believes the cancer helped her get deeply in touch with her inner strength: "I can't describe it. But I asked my mom how I'd changed, and she said, 'You've blossomed, really.'

"You know, we don't have a long time here. There are only so many springs, so many Saturday nights and Monday mornings, and I plan to live them well, and be useful somehow to others."

She has done just that, according to the ACS' Rimer, who says he's "tremendously impressed with Jill's upbeat approach to the whole experience and her honest plea to women to see their doctors and get mammograms.

"She comes across as a very intelligent woman who has her own mind. Lots of these celebrities representing organizations are reading scripts. This woman has her own views. She speaks about her cancer experience so openly."

Ireland has, indeed, been very open, yet she says she must also be cautious when talking to cancer patients because of an increased sensitivity to other people's pain since her illness.

In her book she describes this new feeling of vulnerability: "In cutting off my breast, my heart had been exposed emotionally and physically. I had lost my insulation, my padding, both literally and figuratively."

In fact, friends worry that she's once again giving too much of herself to others and creating stresses in her life. Says her secretary of five years, Sue Overholtz, "She's the most giving person I've ever met. She's the fairest human being I know. She always puts others before herself. But she still tries to take on too much sometimes."

Ireland denies her daily phone calls to cancer patients are too difficult for her: "I don't get tired of the phone calls. I'm so grateful to be alive. I think the reason I'm doing so well is because I'm supposed to do this, to help other cancer patients."

Ireland says it's impossible to live a stress-free life, but she has learned to deal with stress more effectively.

"After my book was finished, I was told to avoid stress and protect my health," she recalls. "Then, I was hit with some of the hardest stresses of my life. That frightened me because I'd been told stress causes illness. You get so scared when you're told 'no stress' and life hands it to you anyway. What do you do?"

Ireland's next book, scheduled for a fall release, will document a period of difficult problems in her family, including her son's bout with hepatitis and her struggle to "let things go" rather than internalize problems as she'd done in the past. Her coping tools: Meditation, prayer, and a spiritual guidebook called Course In Miracles, which is based on forgiveness and changing painful situations by changing perceptions.

"I'm more confident about facing stress now," she says. "I've learned to take care of myself, learned to let go. The Course In Miracles helps me, though I'm not yet sure how. I'm studying it day by day, and it's very difficult."

These past four years have, indeed, forced her to do some spiritual searching. Her own illness made her face death, as did the loss of her friend, Alan Marshall, who died of AIDS in 1986.

"I saw him in the hospital the day before he slipped into a coma. I said, 'Good-bye, honey. I'll see you tomorrow,'" she recalls. "I started out of the door and heard him say softly, 'Good-bye, Jill.' He never called me Jill. It was always 'sweetie' or 'honey' or 'empress,' but never Jill. Alan knew exactly when he was going to die. I think we all do."

But Ireland knows it's not her time yet. She still has too much work to do - like writing another book - and seeing Zuleika off to college. "When it comes time to die, I'll know. Death isn't easy. I won't be quiet about it."

And with that, it's clear she wants to get back to work, back to her writing desk and the quietude that now comfort her. Soon, the light tap of the computer keys can be heard through her bedroom door, barely audible above the pounding surf outside. It is a cozy picture, especially when compared with the hectic pace of Ireland's early life as a performer and mother.

As Overholtz puts it, "To be honest, I think the writing has helped Jill cope with this more than anything else. She's a very strong person, but she's been through very tough times."

Says Karlin: "Jill is probably the most radiant woman I've ever met. She radiates inner strength. And right now, it's her resistance and immunity to this disease that's more important than anything else."

And Ireland, surrounded by the solitude of the ocean, and far from the raucousness of the glitzy film world, seems to know exactly that.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 1988.