“Nobody But Us Really Knows What It’s Like”
by Cindy Phiffer
“I knew from the beginning that I would need to wrap my friends and family around me like an old quilt to get through this,” said the warm, strong voice on the other end of the line. “I couldn’t walk through this valley alone, nor would I want to, and I discovered in the journey that the more I was able to ask for help and to be open about needing it, the more I got it.”
While preparing for my interview with Linda Ellerbee, I had imagined her to be direct, decisive and opinionated, and I wasn’t disappointed. But I hadn’t expected one of the most highly-respected, outspoken journalists in the world to talk about quilts or valleys or asking for help. I wondered what had happened to this trailblazer since she had written the no-holds-barred book about the television industry, And So It Goes.
Through some investigative work of my own, and a refreshingly open, honest interview, a story of survival unfolded. Linda Ellerbee had entered the television news business in the ’70s. Her tenacity, professionalism, and attention to detail had earned her respect as an outspoken journalist, network news correspondent, anchor, writer and producer in a male-dominated industry.
In the early ’80s, Ellerbee celebrated an unfounded cancer scare by buying a stuffed yellow duck in a hospital gift shop. The duck seemed the perfect symbol of the importance of luck, humor and powerful paddling, and when Ellerbee and her partner Rolfe Tessem started their own television production company in 1986, they named it Lucky Duck Productions. This company quickly became widely known as a producer of outstanding, award-winning children’s programming through the critically acclaimed weekly TV news and documentary series, Nick News.
By 1992, Linda Ellerbee was on top of the world. Then, in February, she noticed a lump in her breast while showering. Her doctor alerted her to the possibility that the lump might be a tumor. Ellerbee, a natural researcher, headed straight toward a bookstore and read everything she could find about breast disease. As a result of her investigation, she immediately went to Dr. Susan Love who found cancer in one breast and a pre-cancerous condition in the other. Ellerbee decided to have a double mastectomy, but decided against having reconstructive surgery... at least for now.
“It’s cowardice,” she admits, chuckling. “I didn’t want to have another surgery.” Then, more seriously, she adds, “The other part of it is that I was 47 years old. I was in a long-term, stable relationship with a wonderful man.” Neither felt that her breasts were worth more than her life. Although Ellerbee stresses the individual nature of this decision, she knows she made the right one for herself... for now. She also knows that she hasn’t ruled reconstructive surgery out forever, saying, “I have left the option open.”
According to Ellerbee, options are a valuable commodity to cancer survivors because of the power they possess. She believes that options are most readily available to the educated patient.
“Fighting trains you to fight,” Ellerbee claims. “It’s just that simple...”
“Every piece of information that I knew empowered me,” she recalls, “and made me feel more in control. When you’re facing a disease like cancer, as much control as you can grab, the better off you are because you are so out of control in so much of it. You have entered the land of the disease. You are at the mercy of the medical community in many ways, so to arm yourself with information makes you a better patient.”
In some ways, Ellerbee saw cancer as a similar battle to those she had fought before. The challenges of beating the odds as a female news anchor and serious journalist as well as facing her alcoholism prepared her for her collision with cancer.
“Fighting trains you to fight,” Ellerbee claims. “It’s just that simple. The practice of struggle prepares you so that when something like cancer comes along, your first impulse is not, ‘Now I’m going to go run in a corner and curl up and cry and then die.’ That didn’t seem like a good option to me.”
Ellerbee realizes that survival is only the first of many hurdles survivors face. In the workplace, options are few for some cancer survivors. She becomes quite passionate when discussing the discrimination that some face, and believes that “people are right to be angry about discrimination. It’s appalling. It’s outrageous, and you want to say to the employers that deny them, ‘Wait till this happens to you. Why are you treating me like cancer is some moral failing?’”
Fortunately for Linda Ellerbee, she was in a unique situation when cancer became part of her life. “I was not anybody’s employee,” Ellerbee says. “I owned my own company and it makes a great difference.” She made it her business to continue to live a meaningful life, returning to work as soon as possible, putting her talents to use which, in turn, contributed to her recovery. Four days after Ellerbee was released from the hospital after her mastectomy, she taped a children’s special about the risk of AIDS called A Conversation With Magic.
“I also immediately became very open about my cancer in talking about it,” Ellerbee says, “because in the crash course of learning about cancer we all go through after we’re diagnosed with it, it became apparent to me that one of the reasons so many women die of breast cancer is because we were so silent about it and, therefore, many of us never presented ourselves for treatment until it was too late.”
Although Ellerbee had long been a role model for independent career women, another immediate realization she made was that support was going to be necessary to her survival. Asking for help is “very important,” according to Ellerbee. “It is crucial,” but “hard for a lot of people, including me.”
It’s understandable that it would be tough for a professional who is at the top of her game to ask for help. She has received all of the highest honors in her chosen career including several Emmy, Peabody, CableACE and Columbia duPont Awards. But she has learned that asking for support is helpful for everyone involved, and is “one of the pieces of the puzzle” of recovery.
“We need to let those people who love us really show that love,” Ellerbee explains, “whether that means going to the store to just run an errand for you, or sitting and holding your hand while you cry, or taking you to a movie, or going with you to the doctor. You need to let them help you because they’re over there feeling impotent, too, and out of control, and the more you can involve your loved ones, the less out of control they feel.” Although she knows it’s been said before, Ellerbee stresses the fact that “cancer is a family disease. You don’t get cancer all by yourself. If affects everybody around you.”
As a woman coping with cancer, Linda Ellerbee knows that the greatest support comes from other survivors. One of the things she loves about being a cancer survivor is when she’s stopped by women in airports and on the street, and they tell her about their cancer and how well they’re doing. “That’s very sustaining,” she says gently. “It’s very encouraging, and nobody can quite give you that support but those people. Nobody but us really knows what it’s like.”
Ellerbee is continuing to explore uncharted territory in television with shows like The MTV Interview, another Lucky Duck production that premiered in December as a series of four specials a year hosted by Tabitha Soren, and designed to bring the world and those shaping it to the young people who must live in it. Smart Sex (a highly-rated documentary aimed at changing the unsafe-sexual practices of young people, hosted by Christian Slater and aired on MTV and PBS), The Other Epidemic (a prime-time ABC news special on breast cancer), Ms. Smith Goes to Washington (a look at the first 100 days of the new women elected into the 103rd Congress, awarded a CableACE for best public affairs special of 1993), The Verdict (a live cablecast that reviewed the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion), and Contraception: The Stalled Revolution (aired on TBS and PBS) are other Lucky Duck productions.
Of all of her accomplishments, Ellerbee seems the most touched by her work with children. “Unless you make ‘cancer’ a scare word to them, it’s not,” she says matter-of-factly. “We have done a number of stories having to do with cancer... stories where kids have had cancer... stories where their parents have had cancer... stories where other kids at school have cancer and how you deal with it. We want to give them positive models of people living with cancer. Not dying with it. Living with it.”
If that’s the goal that Linda Ellerbee has chosen for the second half of her life, she has chosen well. For in the living of her own life, Linda Ellerbee continues to be a role model for cancer survivors of all ages.
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This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 1996.