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An Interview with Ryan O'Neal

Leukemia Survivor

by Julie McKenna

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 2002.

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” This tag line remains one of the most memorable in the history of cinema, and it’s from one of film’s most famous tearjerkers. The movie is Love Story.

In a twist of fate, the star of Love Story, Ryan O’Neal, was diagnosed in April 2001 with leukemia, the same kind of cancer that co-star Ali MacGraw’s character had in the movie. In his first interview since being diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), O’Neal is eager to “set the record straight” about his treatment and current health status, having recently been given 48 hours to live by a major U.S. newspaper.

Several months before his diagnosis, Ryan O’Neal had gone to his doctor to see why he was fatigued and not feeling like himself. After eight months of no improvement, he checked into City of Hope in search of a second opinion. “I had lost 20 pounds, but thought I was on a diet,” jokes O’Neal. “I was looking pretty damn good,” he concludes with his trademark dry wit. “Then it turned out to be leukemia. I was very depressed about that.”

In another twist of fate, O’Neal had just completed his work on the film People I Know, starring Al Pacino, and now had time for treatment and recovery. O’Neal got his start in Hollywood during the 1960s as an actor in the hit television series Peyton Place. From there he moved on to the big screen, co-starring with Ali MacGraw in Love Story. O’Neal’s Oscar nomination for his role in the movie was followed up with an outstanding deadpan performance in the comedy What’s Up Doc? with Barbra Streisand.

For the first time, the star of Love Story and What’s Up Doc? talks about his recent experience with cancer.

Upon hearing his diagnosis of CML, Ryan O’Neal and his family were stunned. He recalls thinking, “You know, I’m 60, I’ve had an exciting life, so maybe this is it. It’s over. Facing reality was a little nerve racking.” With humor creeping back into his voice, he continues, “But my knees hurt, so I thought, maybe now I don’t have to get that knee replacement surgery.”

The doctors at City of Hope started O’Neal on Gleevec® when his white blood cell count shot up over 200,000 – a normal white blood cell count is 4,500 - 11,000. “It took several weeks, but each time I went in another 20,000 had dropped off,” says O’Neal. “Now it’s down to 8,000.”

I spoke with Ryan O’Neal just one week after he received the “all clear” from his doctor. “They did a bone marrow examination and they couldn’t find it,” O’Neal says happily. “They couldn’t find the cancer. It’s gone.”

O’Neal will continue to take Gleevec for the rest of his life and currently he is experiencing one side effect from the medication. “I get a little itchy sometimes. It’s a little like an allergy – a skin rash with no rash. I can’t see it, but I feel it. I can live with that,” O’Neal says. He’s happy with the results from Gleevec and he would make the same treatment choice again. “I haven’t done anything differently and CML doesn’t just go away by itself,” states O’Neal. “I mean it’s not like I’m on a special diet, or I’m on herb tea, or back in church. I haven’t done any of those things. It’s not me, it’s Western medicine.”

When Ryan O’Neal was diagnosed with CML, he couldn’t decide whether or not to go public with the news. “I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know what to say,” explains O’Neal. Then to his disappointment, that choice was taken away from him. “The pathology lab gave out my story to the press. Not me,” says O’Neal. “Then it was in the tabloids. It was off and running. I was pursued. I never commented after that. I didn’t have to. Then, last week, a newspaper announced that I had 48 hours to live and everybody picked it up and said, ‘Gee, I guess he won’t be doing the Academy Awards.’ But I did. And I had the City of Hope put out a statement that said I’m in remission and not to cross me off yet.”

When I ask O’Neal what he would want other newly diagnosed cancer survivors to know, he replies, “I would tell them this: There is help. There are amazing advances in treatment.” After a long pause he continues, “You’re the first person I’ve talked to. This is important journalism. I have to say something. I have to let people know that it’s not a death warrant, and they should stay positive and go on with their lives.”

Whatever the next twist of fate, Ryan O’Neal is ready for it. Cancer has made him stronger and more determined to live life than ever before. And the editors of Coping® are pleased to help him “set the record straight.”

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This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2002.