Battling the beast within – writing helped Jill Ireland face her cancer and her son’s drug addiction

Holly Miller

With felt-tip markers and yellow legal pads, the British actress Jill Ireland is battling what she calls a “horrible, grisly goblin that’s living inside my chest.” The monster is cancer, and she became aware of its presence in 1984. What first surfaced as a small lump under her right arm now has attacked her thyroid, chest wall, shoulders, and lungs. Through it all, the basket of markers and pads has proven to be one of her most effective weapons against her dreaded adversary. She carries the basket to her daily therapy sessions and keeps it by her bed for those long nights when pain makes sleep impossible.

I’ve always been a writer,” she says. “When I was a little girl I used to write plays and insist that my friends perform in them. No doubt they hated it. Later, I wrote scripts, stories, and articles for magazines. Whenever I could, I would write, but it wasn’t until Life Wish that I had a subject that was big enough to make a proper book, or that I had the confidence to think that it would.”

The subject of Life Wish was her cancer, and her “proper book” turned out tO be a nationwide bestseller. Although her husband of 20 years, Charles Bronson, still hasn’t read it-he chooses not to relive the trauma-thousands of others have. Norman Cousins, the author of Anatomy of an Illness, called it a public service to be read by cancer patients, their families, and friends. Sidney Sheldon applauded the book as a brave and witty account of the author’s battle against cancer. Jill acknowledges the praise with grace, then refutes it with candor.

People say I’m great,” she says with a laugh. I’m not great. I don’t see myself out there crusading. I’m afraid that I write for more selfish reasons. I loved acting, but as an actress I interpreted somebody else’s means of self- expression. When I write I have the power to express myself completely. It’s very satisfying … I can’t stop doing it. I’m afraid the books write themselves.”

She enjoys talking about her work far more than she likes discussing her cancer. (“I’m a bit bored with reading in the Globe that I’m going to die in six months,” she quips.) However, the topics are intertwined. She often writes to ease her pain and fear; the words that spill onto paper are charged with emotion. This habit of translating feelings into words began the evening before she entered Cedars-Sinai for her first biopsy. Before going to bed, she wrote a letter to her 12-year-old daughter, Zuleika. At the time she didn’t know that the tumor was malignant and that the cancer had spread to her axillary lymph nodes. The note was to be opened and read only if Jill died. Five years later, the late-night writing regimen continues.

When she arrived at an Arlington, Texas, hospital for her most recent round of intensive treatments, she brought with her a word processor, a tape recorder, and her usual supply of pads and markers. A third book is in progress. The working title is Life Time, and it’s the last in her planned trilogy. The second, Life Lines, just released, documents her fight to save her adopted son, Jason, from his drug addiction.

“When I learned my son was a heroin addict, it was devastating,” she says. “The only way I knew how to make any sense out of it was to write about it. There was a lot of breast beating, crying, and carrying on, but the writing was what got it into perspective for me. Putting the book in order helped put our lives in order. When Jason read the final draft, he said, Mom, if it helps just one kid not go through the pain that I’ve gone through, it’s worth it.’ I liked that. ” Their current roles are strangely reversed; Jason is well but his mother isn’t. She finally has stopped worrying about him; now he worries about her. “I’ve done my best,” she says. “He’s on his feet. The irony of the whole thing is that after all those years of heroin and morphine for him, now I’m on morphine. He calls me on the phone and asks, What are they giving you? How are you taking it? Is is making you sick? I She says her new book will touch on her latest and toughest fight to rid her body of its recurring cancer. She comes from strong stock, she assures herself, but she admits that she’s currently experiencing more pain and suffering than she imagined possible.

“This is a passionate time in my life because right now I’m murdering some- thing,” she says. “For the first time in my fife I’m actually committing murder. I’m trying to kill the beast that’s living inside my chest. We’re linked and bonded together, and we’re both suffering.”

She’s concentrating on the battle. She’s grateful for what she calls the “two good years” that followed her mastectomy and chemotherapy in 1984, and she marvels at aU she was able to accomplish. She acknowledges that she will never do it again.

“It was as if I knew I was going to have those two years to do things, and I did everything I possibly could. I wrote a book, co-produced two movies, starred in a film, went on the lecture circuit, and was the American Cancer Society’s crusade chairwoman. I look back and think I could have spread that over 20 years! But it was there to be done and I guess I was supposed to do it. And I did.”

Now her plans are less ambitious. “I don’t look ahead,” she says. “I have to go for moments.”

Breast cancer is like a ticking time bomb. In the earliest stage, or Stage I, the cancer is confined to the breast. When a tiny lesion is detected and treated in this stage, there is a 93 percent chance of a 20-year disease-free survival. Most breast cancers are discovered in Stage II, when the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes under the arms. At this point, the lump may be no larger than a small pea. Yet fewer of the women diagnosed in Stage II win five 20 years. In Stages III and IV, the likelihood of survival is even more dramatically reduced

Breast cancer is endemic. It is everywhere-it will strike one out of ten women in our lifetimes. While we were preparing this article, it struck my 40-year-old secretary, Janet Cox.

At Janet’s request, I “scrubbed in’ I for the biopsy and accompanied the dastardly little white lump to the pathology lab for a frozen section. The silence was deadly as the pathologist looked for cancer cells. There’s bad news and good news here,” he finally said, beckoning me over to the microscope.

If a patient has to have breast cancer, this is the best kind to have. ” He pointed to the cells. “They’re well differentiated. That means she has a slow-growing tumor.” He was trying to console me.

When Janet’s doctor broke the news to her in the family waiting room there were tears and then prayers that her auxiliary lymph nodes would be free of cancer cells. We prayed that Janet’s cancer would be a Stage I-and it was! Twenty nodes were checked and 20 were negative.

Fortune smiles on the prudent. Janet had her first mammogram on the SatEvePost Mammobile at 38. She helped us write about Dr. Myron Moskowitz, the esteemed mammography guru at the University of Cincinnati. He made a believer of Janet. He advocated yearly mammography for women from 40 to 50 years of age. He argued that women shouldn’t wait until 50 for their yearly mammograms as suggested in the NCI and ACS guidelines.

Janet learned something else five years ago when we wrote about Dr. Peggie Findley of the National Cancer Institute, and now Janet was thankful for Dr. Findley’s research. The jury was out then, but now we could all feel confident in assuring Janet that a lumpectomy with radiation would be just as safe as a mastectomy. Janet wanted to keep her breast. Her tumor was very small-less than a centimeter. She quickly opted for removing only the lump.

Like the trooper that she is, Janet scheduled her radiation treatments for early each morning for six weeks. Two weeks after surgery, she was back at the Post. On her first day back, not only did she look as pretty and as healthy as ever, but she felt that way too.

Shortly after Janet returned to work, we bought plants for the office, and I watched her as she reached up to hang them. “Are you happy that you opted for the lumpectomy? I asked her.

” Yes, ” she responded without hesitation. “I think all women should be told that there is that option.” Janet became serious. “I struck up a conversation with another breast cancer patient in the hospital waiting room this morning,” she said. “Her tumor had been small like mine, but her doctor insisted on a mastectomy.”

COPYRIGHT 1989 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

You May Also Like

Let’s face the killer emphysema head on

Let’s face the killer emphysema head on – editorial G.E. Synhorst There’s a growing army in America that can’t hack it any more. So…

THE NATURAL SUPERIORITY OF THE MULE or, Why Uncle Mule Can Out-jump Your Horse

THE NATURAL SUPERIORITY OF THE MULE or, Why Uncle Mule Can Out-jump Your Horse John Hauer The hard-working mule is probably the mos…

Dick Clark—rockin’ for diabetes: the veteran broadcaster is stepping forward to inform Americans about the link between diabetes and cardiovascular disease

Dick Clark—rockin’ for diabetes: the veteran broadcaster is stepping forward to inform Americans about the link between diabetes and cardiovasc…

Worm therapy: a new treatment for IBD? Worm therapy offers hope for patients suffering from painful and debilitating diseases such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis

Worm therapy: a new treatment for IBD? Worm therapy offers hope for patients suffering from painful and debilitating diseases such as Crohn’s an…