Breast Cancer Survivor
Ann Jillian successfully navigated Hollywood after breast cancer diagnosis
Actor/motivational speaker brings message of hope to audiences everywhere
It was national news in 1985 when a television, Broadway and film star announced that she had breast cancer and would have a double mastectomy. Ann Jillian was the sassy, sexy, platinum blonde that America loved, and who now had cancer.
Her decision to go public was a rarity in Hollywood and for Ann personally, it was daunting. Her diagnosis came as her popularity was on the rise. In 1979, she shared the stage singing and dancing with Mickey Rooney in Sugar Babies. She had just starred in two TV series: It’s A Living and Jennifer Slept Here. In 1982, Ann was nominated for her first Emmy Award (Best Actress) for her portrayal of Mae West in the ABC TV film of the same name, in which she did all her own singing. She was nominated for a second Emmy Award (Best Supporting Actress) in 1984 in the CBS TV mini-series — Ellis Island.
Ann was in the middle of filming the 1985 star-studded television special, Alice in Wonderland, when she received the sobering news. With Hollywood being, what she called, “an industry that specializes in the illusion of perfection,” she worried if she’d be able to return to work or be offered projects in the future. These were questions that she and others were asking.
“I was an actress fighting for my life against breast cancer, and how could I get the TV networks to continue buying shows from me after I lost both my breasts to cancer?” Ann said. “I could still act and still deliver a performance. So I polished myself up as best as I could, and confident that I could still deliver the ‘goods,’ I walked into the network meetings and showed them I believed I was every bit as good as I was before. And Brandon Tartikoff, then President of NBC, must have believed a whole lot because he ordered a TV series and three TV movies of the week from me!”
Ann elected to have double bilateral modified radical mastectomy, with no reconstruction. She then had four months of follow-up chemotherapy. Because she chose to publically discuss her cancer treatment, Ann was the recipient of a treasured phone call from Betty Ford who herself had a mastectomy in 1974.
“The night before my surgery, a friend had reached out to former First Lady, Betty Ford, and asked her to call me at the hospital,” Ann said. “I was so touched. There is one piece of advice that stuck with me all these years and I share it with every group of women I speak to. She said, ‘It’s OK to cry, but not for too long…’”
Determined to maintain her busy acting career throughout her treatment and recovery, she returned to work 11 days after her surgery. Ann gives credit to the directors and actors who accommodated her schedule. When she had fully recovered, Mr. Tartikoff (a Hodgkin lymphoma survivor) encouraged her to tell her own story on TV. Ann explained that Mr. Tartikoff’s own physician believed that an engaging program with accurate information could reach millions of viewers and, “could do a lot of good, and save a lot of lives.”
She starred in The Ann Jillian Story in 1988. The television movie chronicled how she and her husband/manager Andy Murcia successfully navigated through her cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery while facing the pressure of her being an in-demand actor. She agreed to do the film in order to offer hope to women diagnosed with breast cancer and their families, but only if she had control over the accuracy of the medical facts.
The Ann Jillian Story was the highest rated television movie in the 1987-88 season, and Ann was nominated for her third Emmy Award (Lead Actress in a Miniseries) and won the 1988 Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Television Movie or Miniseries. She said she still receives thank you notes from women around the world who have seen the movie.
Ann continued with a busy film and television schedule through the next few years. In 1990, Good Housekeeping magazine named her one of the most admired women of the world as she continued to remind women of the importance of early detection and swift medical attention. Just two years later, she took on her most prized role as Mom, when she and her husband, Andy, became the proud parents of Andrew Murcia.
“In 1985, I was given back my life. In 1992, I was privileged to be a partner in bringing a life into the world at age 42 — seven years after my breast cancer. The thought fills me with wonder and humility. What a blessing,” she said. “A healthy, wonderful baby boy. There are no words to adequately express my joy and my gratitude to God. Every parent sees a miracle in the face of his or her baby. I saw that, and because of my medical history, saw something deeper. I still do.”
She began limiting her appearances in front of the camera to be a “hands-on Mom” and was also becoming a caregiver for her elderly parents. However, her professional changes and life experiences opened the door to different career directions — motivational speaker, columnist and cancer advocate.
“In 1985-86, after my surgery, my husband received a request from a women’s organization in New Orleans. They wanted me to be the keynote speaker for an event they were having for their community to emphasize breast cancer awareness,” Ann explained.
“I was not experienced in extemporaneous speaking. In fact, l told Andy to let them know I was ‘no good without a script.’ But they persisted over a period of days and asked Andy if I would agree to do five minutes. He helped me out and off I went to New Orleans, index cards in hand. But something happened at the end of my five-minute presentation; I wasn’t a doctor, but I was an expert in my own experience, and five minutes turned into 30 to 40 minutes. That was the start of now 27 years of lectures.”
Becoming a columnist also came at a request. Ron Miller, an entertainment critic who had reviewed many of Ann’s performances, had been corresponding with her for many years. When he created TheColumnists.com web magazine, the invited columnists consisted of established writers, celebrities and professors. He asked Ann to contribute.
“My first concern was that I was not a writer and the only way that I would write columns for him would be if he was absolutely truthful with me about my first try. If he thought the column was a ‘stinker’, he would have to tell me and I wouldn’t feel bad. But he liked it, and encouraged me to write more. If you go to TheColumnists.com and scroll to the Archives, you will find some of my columns about Bob Hope, President Ronald Reagan, and Betty Ford, to name a few.”
Reflecting On the Impact of a Cancer Diagnosis
Ann continues to inspire and motivate audiences across the country and encourage cancer survivors. She spreads her message regarding breast health and stresses the importance of early detection as the best protection. “While we have had advances in detection and treatment over the past three decades, the one constant factor for a more promising prognosis is discovering it (cancer) early.”
“There are legions of women who are diagnosed with breast cancer every year and have gone on to have happy, healthy and productive lives. I tell women not to dwell, or let anyone make them dwell, on the negative. Focus, instead, on the positive — on life at the end of the tunnel.”
As she considered her own cancer journey and survivorship, Ann emphasized the support of her family and her faith as key elements to her fight against cancer. Her mother was a cancer survivor of more than 42 years and both of her parents, who were immigrants from Lithuania, lived until they were in their 90s.
“I have them to thank for my attitude. They were survivors through their own health issues and their life history. I saw the quiet strength and determination they possessed throughout their troubles, and I saw what faith and a good sense of humor could do. It is natural, then, for me to have absorbed a hopeful, optimistic outlook on life.”
She continued, “I also cannot speak about my experience without including the importance faith played in my recovery. For my family and me, faith was the solid foundation from which we drew our strength. The uncertain road was much easier to travel knowing that God was with me all the way. In the meantime, I still had to do my part to help myself get well. I loved the gift of life God had given me, and I would fight for it to show Him how much.”
One of Ann’s most popular speaking programs is entitled, “Never Had a Bad Day in My Life,” which is a reflection of her positive outlook. “I was given a second chance at life. I have replaced the phrase, ‘This is a cancer situation,’ with ‘You’re fine, go home,’ and ‘You’re pregnant!’ The joyous memory of those exclamations trumps the shock of the first one in 1985.”
Ann concluded, “I hope that my challenges may have brought someone needed strength — and that I have brought some smiles along the way. When we encourage, we lift the heart to do things we never thought we would be able to do.”