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Rue McClanahan - She's Surviving and Thriving

by Cindy Phiffer

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, March/April 1999.

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

Rue McClanahan (top) received an Emmy as Best Actress in a Comedy Series in 1987 for the role of Blanche Devereaux, which she created for television's long-running hit The Golden Girls. Pictured (from left) are fellow cast members Beatrice Arthur, Estelle Getty and Betty White.
(photo courtesy of Buena Vista Television)

Rue McClanahan was busier than The Golden Girls’ Blanche Devereaux at a Wealthy Widowers convention. She returned to Broadway in Anne Meara’s Afterplay, delighted London audiences in a revival of Harvey, played Mother Superior in the A&E presentations of Nunsense and Nunsense II, and made the audiotape Leading With My Heart, the autobiography of President Clinton’s mother, Virginia.

She also completed her final round of chemotherapy and underwent six weeks of radiation for breast cancer.

The 64-year-old “survivor thriver,” as she calls herself, discovered a lump on June 3, 1997. “I was having a massage while I was in New York rehearsing a play,” she explains, allowing her story to unfurl like a flag on the porch of a midwestern farmhouse. “I was on my back, and she was massaging my legs and feet. I was just feeling under my arms,” Rue recalls, her voice becoming a growl as she says “my arms.” “I said to her, ‘Isn’t it disgusting that when you get overweight, you even get fat under your arms, of all places?’” What happened next took her mind off weight and all things mundane.

“I felt this little bean-sized lump, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I better have this checked out.’” In a turn of events that might be considered an unbelievable movie plot, the Oklahoma native asked the friend who had recommended the masseuse to refer her to a doctor. That friend, Morrow Wilson, was assisting the director and producers of the play McClanahan was rehearsing. He would become her husband by the end of the year.

On Friday, June 5, Rue and Morrow started the day with a visit to his family doctor, who confirmed their fears. “I couldn’t believe it,” she recalls. “I just went all cold. I felt like I was going to faint, and I had to hold onto the table.”

This would be the beginning of a long day for the couple. “[The doctor] sent us to a radiologist who took some tests and sent us to a lab that took some tests, and they sent us to an oncologist that afternoon, bing! bing! bing! And the oncologist said it was cancerous,” Rue says, still amazed at the chain of events. The lump did not show up on a mammogram, but a sonogram on her right breast showed a tiny dot. The oncologist recommended an immediate double mastectomy.

“I almost fainted again, I was so scared,” McClanahan says candidly. “I asked Morrow if he would stay with me that night. We were just friends, but that evening, he said, ‘I don’t care if they have to do the double mastectomy, I’m going to see you through this.’”

“Surround yourself with people who give you assurance that you’re going to recover completely.” - Rue McClanahan

Unhappy with the initial prognosis, Morrow accompanied Rue to a second oncologist the following Monday. That physician recommended a single mastectomy. “It was just one millimeter in diameter, and then a little precancerous dot about an inch away, also tiny,” the Emmy Award-winning actress remembers. Still not satisfied, she went for a third opinion.

Rue called a doctor recommended by a friend of Morrow, and they clicked immediately. She made an appointment for the next Friday, and this physician’s tests showed Rue to be a good candidate for a lumpectomy. He also recommended that she follow the surgery with radiation and chemotherapy, giving her a choice between a moderate program with fewer side effects and an aggressive program. In character, McClanahan chose the aggressive approach.

During this time, Rue and Morrow realized that theirs was a match made in heaven, and they planned a wedding for December. An outpatient lumpectomy was performed on June 20, and on July 9 ten lymph nodes were removed. Rue was warned that the procedure would require a more lengthy hospitalization and what could be an extended recovery period.

“When I woke up at 11:00, I was feeling pretty good,” she remembers, still surprised at her fate. “They gave me one painkiller intravenously. At 4:00, I said, ‘I feel like getting up and walking around.’ I was attached to one of those rolling things with tubes, so I wheeled that and walked around and around the hallway. I started testing my arm by raising it up to the side, and I found that I could go all the way up over my head with no pain.” McClanahan revisits the accomplishment with a sense of awe. “Then I tried making windmills, forwards and backwards. I had complete range of motion!”

A veteran yoga practitioner, Rue credits her quick recovery to her physical fitness. She was released the next morning with a drainage tube she wore for 16 days. Even that didn’t slow her down. She returned to California to close the escrow on her house and get everything moved out. While there, she and Morrow drove to San Diego to look into alternative treatment options.

While contemplating her choices, Rue got a call on her car phone from her oncologist saying that her return to New York and traditional treatment was a matter of life and death. “We went back and I started the radiation,” she says, “but I still wasn’t convinced that alternative [therapy] wasn’t the way to go. I was reading everything I could find. I was talking to everybody I could talk to about this, and I got totally different advice about whether I should go alternative or conventional. It was very confusing.”

In the end, McClanahan chose a traditional course of treatment accompanied by strong mental imagery and spiritual visualization, followed by such complementary regimens as a vigorous exercise routine, vitamin supplements and a vegetarian diet. Imagery exercises involved picturing the chemotherapy agents and her immune system as large, modern spaceship weapons that were powerful and accurate.

“They would zap the cancer cells, which were these big, dumb, wobbly, stupid things. I also called angels around me,” she says. “I’m not a religious person, but I had angels with me everywhere I went. Whenever I started to get scared, I called in spirits of family and friends, and they supported me through it. They assured me that I was going to recover and that everything was fine.”

Between chemotherapy treatments, the energetic actress appeared as Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! in Charleston, SC. After radiation, she returned to California to finish taping an episode of Columbo, then went to Toronto to play the mystical, flamboyant sorceress neighbor in A Saintly Switch with David Alan Grier and Vivica A. Fox. The telefilm, which aired in January on The Wonderful World of Disney, fit her like a glove.

“My hair was starting to grow out, but it was kinky. I looked like a big tomato with Brillo on my head,” Rue admits, cackling at the recollection. “They made me some fantastic turbans full of feathers and jewels, and I got to wear caftans I helped to design. In fact, I brought some of them from home.” The avid animal advocate even got to carry a brilliantly colored cockatoo on her shoulder.

Asked what advice she would give Coping readers, McClanahan doesn’t hesitate. “Surround yourself with people who give you assurance that you’re going to recover completely,” she suggests. “Do affirmations every day. Get cancer imagery-guidance tapes. Sit down, relax and listen to them daily. Go to support groups until you find the right one.”

Finally, Rue urges cancer survivors to be their own advocates. “The biggest mistake that people make is that they get so panicky, they think, ‘The doctor will make me well.’ That is not so. The doctor’s your partner, but you’re in charge. As inexperienced as you may be with this particular disease, you are experienced beyond the ages with a sense of life, with a sense of purpose, with a sense of yourself.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 1999.