Betty Rollin - “…and Second, You Laugh”
by Ellen Jordan
Her extraordinary wit and candor are captured in her 1976 best selling book First You Cry, which chronicles her battle with a breast cancer diagnosis, mastectomy and the dramatic impact of cancer on her personal life. She changed the way millions of women view the disease. The book was re-released by Harper Paperbacks in 1993 in celebration of a new era in the fight against breast cancer. Rollin wrote a new introduction and epilogue, eighteen years after her first mastectomy and nine years after her second mastectomy with the hope that she will someday mourn the book’s death because a cure finally has been found for this dreaded disease.
Despite her widely respected news career, Rollin will still be known as the woman who used humor to deal with breast cancer. If she could laugh in the face of fear, other women could too. Being “deftly kicked in the pants by God, or whoever distributes cancer” made Rollin see life differently. “To be funny about it is really shocking, but if you can find humor, it helps you. It gets you through it,” she says. The book discusses the effect of cancer on her marriage, surviving a divorce, a romantic love affair, and a new-found courage that made her unafraid of things “like bosses, spouses and plumbers.” The book was later made into a television movie starring Mary Tyler Moore.
To many women, Rollin’s real bravery was her decision to leave her first husband during her crisis. She credits cancer with giving her new insights into a marriage that was not satisfying. The confidence to leave during that uncertain time is an inspiration to those whose brush with death reinforced helplessness. Risk-taking became the only option for Betty Rollin, and she began to experience life as she had never known it before. As she says, “the damage to my body had, indeed, done wonders for my head.”
Fourteen publishers refused the manuscript of First You Cry before its eventual publication because “no one wanted to read about cancer. Not just breast cancer, ANY cancer,” she says, “but breast cancer was thought to be particularly yuk. The only reason the book was finally published is that it had romance, a young woman, sex, and a kind of happy ending…she runs off with a guy! It was for all the wrong reasons that it was published.” Its success was phenomenal, bringing breast cancer forever out of the closet.
“I’ve always had this peculiar gratitude toward cancer. Everybody thinks we’re crazy but each other.”
Rollin has come a long way since 1976. She had a second marriage in 1979, published Last Wish in 1982 about assisting her beloved mother’s suicide in the face of her unbearable pain from ovarian cancer, and had a second mastectomy in 1984. Rollin gives upbeat speeches on the tremendous strides in breast cancer diagnosis, education and medical research. “The best news is that more of us get to live,” she says affirmatively. She points to recent studies showing that fewer women, not more, are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. The bleak statistic that one in every eight women will develop breast cancer is misleading – only if a woman reaches the age of 95 does her risk become one in eight. Better educated physicians, better educated patients, “better educated everyone” has led to amazing strides in early diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, she notes.
The way the world looks at breast cancer has changed dramatically since 1975. “One reason is that so many of us have had it. So many of us have survived. While there is still no cure, there are so many women who have had it and who are living. There’s nothing more fun than meeting someone ninety years old who had breast cancer.” she adds.
Another thing that has changed is the fear of dying from breast cancer. “It’s not the death sentence it was. The mortality rate for breast cancer is down. Besides talking about it, what else has changed is that it’s okay to be funny about it. And a final thing that’s changed is that reconstruction surgery is so great,” Rollin says. She had reconstructive surgery in 1986 with saline breast implants - “it’s just been terrific – they’re like wonderful little waterbeds.”
In 1984, Rollin was to join her husband, Dr. Harold Edwards, a mathematician, in Australia when she learned she needed another mastectomy. She didn’t want to worry her husband who was thousands of miles away. A close friend called Edwards, and he traveled home, “I was a lot smarter the second time. I knew I could survive, but I also knew the danger,” Rollin recalls. “I get a lot of calls from women facing the disease and I always say to people, the worst part of the whole experience is the horrible mix of shock and terror between the tests and the surgery. It does not get worse than this!”
Rollin’s second experience was a “mercifully short” time between tests and surgery. Fortunately, the cancer had not metastasized.
“To be funny about it is really shocking, but if you can find humor, it helps you. It gets you through it!”
Rollin returned to work soon after both bouts with breast cancer. She cautions that it is an individual decision. “There aren’t any ‘shoulds’ about any of this. Listen to your own head and instincts. For some people, it may be good to get back to work. I would never prescribe what to do for someone. I do think it’s good to resume your life in a way that makes you feel comfortable. Be good to yourself. I had nurturing work and a nurturing family at work. It’s really important since life has done this mean thing to you to be kind to yourself,” she advises.
The cancer vigil is often a scary waiting game. “Initially, you become a hypochondriac. You’re always thinking that you have cancer again. In a way, that never ends, but in a way, you can laugh at yourself. Some of the dark thoughts of long ago eventually lessen. Fear doesn’t go away, but it fades.”
Cancer has made all the difference to Betty Rollin. The very thing that could have ended her life, “is the very thing that made it so good,” she says in her 1993 epilogue to First You Cry. “I’ve always had this peculiar gratitude toward cancer. Everybody thinks we’re crazy but each other. We understand that life can be over – really understanding that makes us take advantage of life more,” Rollin says with determination.
She never stops talking about breast cancer survival. Her work with the American Cancer Society, the National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations, Look Good-Feel Better National Advisory Board, and other research and support groups in the fight against breast cancer continues. “There has been a lot happening, treatment is better, early detection is better, women are living longer,” she says. It has become a story with lots of happy endings.
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This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 1997.