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Ann Jillian's Advice:

Don't Give Cancer a Chance


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 1987.

Celebrity Cancer Survivor

Jillian with Steve Allen: Speaking with hope and knowledge.
(Photo by Bob Villard)

It could've been Friday night in Las Vegas.

Ten chandeliers lit the long ballroom filled to standing room only. An excited buzz bounced off the richly paneled walls.

"Did you see her movie on television Monday night?"

"No, but I saw her on Hour Magazine."

"Didn't she have a double radical mastectomy?"

"Yes," said the woman, one of more than 700 who had gathered in Colorado Springs on a Saturday morning to welcome performer Ann Jillian. They didn't want to see her sing and dance. They wanted to hear how she had won her battle against breast cancer.

Jillian, the keynote speaker for the Women's Life Festival sponsored by Penrose Health Systems, had both breasts removed in 1985 and then underwent chemotherapy. Since then, there have been no signs of the disease's spread or recurrence.

"Only after 1985 did I start doing public speaking," Jillian told her audience. "I speak because I'm a stickler for education on this subject.

Jillian did such a good job telling her story that President Reagan gave her the American Cancer Society's 1986 Courage Award.

"I speak because I feel in my own personal way I'm kicking cancer in the bottom. I speak with hope and knowledge that there is life after breast cancer."

Moments into Jillian's presentation, quite a few women were overcome with emotion. No one knew how many also had lost a breast, or perhaps even a loved one, to the disease. Statistics show that one in 10 women will get breast cancer. But, as Jillian pointed out, 92% can be successfully treated if the disease is caught in time.

"We have the responsibility to protect our lives. We're shy of touching ourselves, for many different reasons, but it's important," Jillian asserted.

In addition to daily self-examination, she also stressed the importance of acting quickly if any irregularities develop: "If you go to the doctor and he says to get a mammogram, then get a mammogram. It's a low dosage X-ray and it's not dangerous. Not getting it checked out is what's dangerous."

And if the doctor wants to do a biopsy, let him, Jillian emphasized. She says she sought a second opinion when her gynecologist wanted to perform one: "My internist said, 'Let's watch it for a while.' And since I was very busy at the time, I decided, 'OK, let's watch it.'"

But "watching it" gave the cancer enough time to develop in both breasts.

"Yes, I did lose both my breasts, but my story has a happy ending - I'm alive," Jillian said. "Don't let fear get in the way of your priorities. And don't let your other priorities get in the way of the most important thing in your life - your health."

The publicity that followed surgery made it difficult not to go public with her struggle, Jillian admits. She and her husband-manager, Andy Murcia, worried that the tabloids would sensationalize the ordeal: "I spoke to People and gave them my story. If that's what they [the public] wanted to read about, I wanted to make sure it was my story they were reading."

Indeed, Jillian did such a good job telling it that President Reagan gave her the American Cancer Society's 1986 Courage Award for "her personal courage in her battle against cancer and for giving women nationwide greater understanding about the hopeful side of breast cancer."

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Read other Coping® interviews with Ann Jillian: “We Are Who We Are From Within”, and "Live & Learn ... It Works For Me!"

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 1987.