Ann Jillian “We Are Who We Are From Within”
by Cindy Phiffer
Ann Jillian was on top of the world in 1985. Since the age of four when she wowed a Lithuanian audience in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a medley of native songs, she had moved from one stage to another, always in control, always at ease. From television to Broadway, from the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera to the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, Jillian had developed her talents as an actor, a singer and a dancer.
Then she discovered a lump in her left breast. After a mammogram of both breasts, Jillian was advised to have a biopsy. Curious about that diagnosis, she got a second opinion from an internist who recommended that she simply monitor the situation for a while. This sounded like a better option, so Jillian went back to work.
When her right breast became tender and sore, she decided to check things out further. This time, a biopsy showed cancer in both breasts, and the doctor recommended a double mastectomy.
In the world of entertainment where parts are sometimes valued more than the whole, this news could have signaled the end of her career. However, Jillian had other plans. “It was a tough ordeal,” she says of that time, “but my Lithuanian heritage came through for me. It was an inconvenience, a detour. That’s all.”
Some thought Jillian was simply not facing reality. Their concerns disappeared over the next few months as the veteran performer plowed right back into her career without skipping a beat. Eleven days after surgery, Jillian was back on the set of the musical miniseries Alice in Wonderland alongside such co-workers as Sammy Davis, Jr., Kim Novak and Eva Marie Saint.
Within several weeks she performed with Bob Hope in Dallas, and returned to the set of her television series, It’s a Living. During this time, she underwent precautionary chemotherapy. Although both cancer sites had been contained and surgically removed and there had been no lymph node involvement, Ann and her husband/manager Andy Murcia wanted to assure the complete obliteration of any stray cancer cells.
Although these were tough times for the couple, they seemed to grow closer as they faced each challenge together spiritually, if not always physically. Part of what held them together was a respect for each other’s need for space.
From television to Broadway, from the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera to the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, Jillian had developed her talents as an actress, a singer and a dancer. Then she discovered a lump in her left breast.
“I think that we all need that momentary solitude where the outside world – and I mean not outside the walls of the house,” Jillian explains, “but I’m talking about anyone outside of who you are – does not really need to share. There are many times that we require personal moments. It is a time that we have every right to.” A quiet certainty gives her voice the strength of conviction without a hint of hostility. Murcia, playing the role of both husband and manager, walked the fine line between loving concern and debilitating over-protectiveness. In his book Man to Man: When the Woman You Love Has Breast Cancer, co-authored by Bob Stewart, Andy describes watching his wife work in a less than ideal environment during this time. “It was like watching a fragile kitty in a cage as mean folks poked a stick at it,” he recalls. “But I kept my mouth shut because that’s what Ann wanted. She didn’t want to be treated any differently because she was taking chemotherapy.”
Because of this type of support, it might have been tempting to deny normal aggravations that are part of every healthy relationship. “I think anger is good to release,” Jillian says. “Anger is a normal emotion, and necessary sometimes. Now the question is, ‘How do you release it without hurting another individual’s feelings?’ I’ve always been very diplomatic, I have felt, but there are times when time does not allow for a heck of a lot of diplomacy, so you just say it. You don’t do it to personally attack. You do it to clear the air.”
In 1988, Jillian won the Best Actress Golden Globe award and an Emmy nomination for her self-portrayal in the #1 highest rated television film of the season, NBC’s The Ann Jillian Story. It was the story of her own battle with breast cancer, and through the movie she touched the lives and hearts of millions by daring to speak where so many had been silent. “My real reward was being able to get my ‘message of hope’ out to the general public,” says Jillian, “and I’m gratified by the fact that every time this movie airs anywhere in the world, some woman may be reminded and encouraged to ‘get that lump checked’ and a life may be saved.”
Part of Jillian’s personal story included the choice not to have reconstructive surgery. Although she was flooded with about 60,000 letters of concern and support following her mastectomy, there was one which concerned her.
“People would ask me during interviews if I wanted to have reconstruction.” Jillian recalls, her voice slowing. “I just strictly answered candidly what my own personal choice was and I said, ‘no.’ Apparently, it annoyed one particular reader, and she wrote to me saying, ‘Why would you say that? Don’t you know you’re scaring women? And what kind of a woman are you anyway, without breasts?’ After my nostrils come back to their original position,” Jillian remembers with a wry laugh, “I realized the pain that was coming through the page and I wrote back to the lady. I said, ‘Each and every single one of us takes in the information that we get, regardless of what procedure we’re about to go through, so that we can make an intelligent choice for ourselves. I am not necessarily for or against reconstruction. For myself, it didn’t fit into what I wanted from life. I felt that my body had come through surgery with flying colors. I really didn’t care whether I wore my prosthesis on the inside or on the outside of my body.”
Continuing to speak deliberately, Jillian adds, “I told her, ‘As far as what kind of a woman I am, the same woman I was before, but hopefully stronger for having gone through this.’ I would stand by any woman’s side if she wanted to have reconstruction, as I would hope that they would stand by me and those like me who choose not to.”
Obviously passionate about the subject, Jillian affirms, “We are who we are from within and not who we are as others would like to see us. If that’s how we value ourselves, strictly by those parts which I consider just whipped cream on the cake, then we’re in big trouble, because we are the substance of who we are which has absolutely nothing to do with that which is on the outside.”
This attitude has made Jillian an effective spokesperson for breast cancer survivors. Unlike some who define “activism” in purely political terms, she believes that everyone can create positive change, simply by being “who and what they are. They have a very quiet work.” she says, her voice somewhat softer but no less sure. “Some people don’t have the talent to go out and talk, nor the time, nor the desire. Some people are politically inclined; others are creatively inclined. Some quietly and diligently continue working in their own lives, and there’s a cause and effect. What they do is watched by other people, and perhaps other people are influenced by what they do.”
“That, in and by itself, is working positively towards an end. I know of many women who work every single day who are unsung heroes, strictly by continuing to positively help their families. They have their work, whether it be in their home, and believe me, now that I’m a mother, I know that ‘working mother’ is a redundant phrase,” she says with a chuckle, “because it’s a very difficult job, but it’s a labor of love, and it’s something that so many women out there are doing and not given enough credit for. Each and every thing that we do can be something of a positive influence. Everything I do means something. Nothing is worthless. That’s the way that I look at life.”
“We are who we are from within and not who we are as others would like to see us. If that’s how we value ourselves, strictly by those parts which I consider just whipped cream on the cake, then we’re in big trouble…”
Inspired by her real-life role of cancer survivor, Jillian has developed a series of lectures appropriately titled Surviving & Thriving, The Winner In You, and A Conversation with Ann Jillian. “My lectures are all about life, health and the joys of motherhood," Jillian explains. “I learned early on that cancer is a tough subject to talk about, so I decided to use my talents as an entertainer to make sure my lectures were delivered in an entertaining fashion with lots of humor and a song or two.”
In 1986, the American Cancer Society recognized Jillian’s strength of spirit by honoring her with its Courage Award, presented by then-President Ronald Reagan. Although she had done amazing things at that point, life had much more in store for Jillian. In 1992, she gave birth to Andrew Joseph H. Nauseda Murcia, IV, better known as “Andy.”
Since then, her parents’ health declined dramatically and her mother passed away in April. Jillian, who has said she considers he favorite role that of “Mommy,” sees the role of daughter as including the care of her parents as a natural part of the cycle of life. Prior to her mother’s passing, Jillian’s parents lived with their daughter and her family for two years. During that time, the family learned to live with her father’s heart condition and the effect of Alzheimer’s disease on her mother. After her mother suffered a stroke last spring, they entered a new phase of life.
“Hospital beds and wheelchairs and ramps and physical therapy… all in our home, because that’s where I wanted my Mom,” Jillian says, and the determination in her voice is unmistakable. Then she adds candidly, “and I’ve got a 5-year-old boy. Is it hard to balance? You betcha. My first duty, of course is to my son. Being a good daughter means being a good mother. I’m trying to teach him a valuable lesson about the values within a family and how we help one another. I want him to know that we’ve been given hearts to love with, and the more we love, the more we are capable of loving.”
As Jillian continues to speak, emotion floods her voice. “I could not turn my back on the woman that gave me life,” she says gently, but firmly. “I understand certain things now. I realize how much she and my father did for me, and it has been my pleasure to be there for them and I believe my mother felt it. And I’m sure my son would not be able to talk about it in adult terms at the moment, but I believe that it will spring forth its fruit at some other given time in the future, when he needs it.”
Ann Jillian sees life as a gift, and is continually grateful for the opportunity to live it to the fullest. She may have been on top of the world in 1985, but the life she has lived since then as a cancer survivor has given her wings.
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Read other Coping® interviews with Ann Jillian: "Live & Learn ... It Works For Me!" and "Ann Jillian's Advice: Don't Give Cancer a Chance".
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 1997.