A Conversation with Phyllis Newman
The Tony Award-winning actress reflects on her breast cancer diagnosis more than 25 years later.
by Laura Shipp
Phyllis Newman got her start in show business imitating Carmen Miranda professionally in Atlantic City when she was four years old. But it was her portrayal of Martha Vale in the musical Subways Are for Sleeping – in which she wore only a bath towel – that earned her a Tony Award and catapulted her to national fame. More recently, in June 2009, she received her second Tony Award, the newly created Isabelle Stevenson Award for her philanthropic efforts in the theater community.
Though she is a self-proclaimed Broadway baby, Phyllis’s career doesn’t end at the footlights. She has worked extensively in television – including being the first woman to host The Johnny Carson Show – and in film. In addition to acting, Phyllis is a writer, a director, a producer, and the founder of the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative of The Actor’s Fund of America. The Initiative addresses the countless concerns women in the entertainment industry face when dealing with a serious medical condition, like cancer.
And like so many philanthropic organizations, this one was birthed from personal experience. Phyllis Newman is a breast cancer survivor. She was diagnosed in 1983. A time when there were no pink ribbons, when October only signified the beginning of fall, and when so many women with breast cancer lacked survivorship role models because the disease still carried a stigma and very few women discussed it openly.
”You didn’t know many people who were survivors because everyone was so quiet about it then.”
She found the lump in her breast during a self-exam and promptly scheduled a mammogram. Her husband was with her for the screening, and Phyllis recalls her doctor mostly addressing her husband, rather than her, about the results. “It was so condescending,” she reveals in an interview with Coping® magazine. “There was just so much insensitivity in the way [breast cancer] was described, and you were treated like a child.” For example, one doctor even told her that her other breast, which showed no evidence of disease, was “a ticking bomb.” Phyllis opted to have both breasts removed. This was followed by weekly, low-dose chemotherapy – a regimen that didn’t cause hair loss and allowed Phyllis to continue her theater work during treatment. About her double mastectomy, Phyllis says, “I have never been sorry that I did it because it took away all of that endless worry.”
Another decision about which Phyllis has no regrets is forgoing reconstructive surgery. “I just didn’t want to have any more surgery of any kind,” Phyllis confides. Though she does admit that if she were faced with the same decision in 2010, with the advances that have been made since the 1980s (such as immediate post-mastectomy breast reconstruction), she probably would have chosen differently. “Even though I have never regretted not having reconstruction surgery,” she says, “the truth is that if back then, the surgery was like it is now, I would have done it.”
Medical advancements are not the only thing that has changed in the past quarter-century since Phyllis’s breast cancer diagnosis. Where “cancer” was once a seldom-uttered word, it is now the subject of movies, books, news stories, talk shows … even magazines. “You didn’t hear a lot of inspirational stories, or you didn’t know many people who were survivors because everyone was so quiet about it then,” Phyllis recalls. “Now, women can look at somebody like Christina Applegate. You see this beautiful young lady who has had a double mastectomy, who is still working, and who is talking about it. That would be terrific, I would think, to be able to have a role model. I think that makes a huge difference.”
Cancer-free for more than 25 years, 77-year-old Phyllis is still acting, still writing, and still raising awareness for women’s health issues and needs. And if you want to know the secret to her resilience, Phyllis says, “You just have to keep showing up. That’s the secret, really. Keep showing up.”
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Action! For more information about the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative of The Actor’s Fund of America, visit ActorsFund.org.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2010.