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Healing Steps

It was the most challenging role of Lynn Redgrave's life: cancer survivor.

By Mary Ann O'Roark

As appeared in

Lynn Redgrave died from breast cancer in 2010; we offer this 2005 story in tribute to her.

A friend of mine called me long-distance recently. Her voice was calm but intense. "I have breast cancer," she told me.

By the time I hung up I felt frightened and concerned, not just for my friend, but also for myself.

More than 200,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. It's the leading cancer diagnosed in women today.

When cancer strikes–and it does–how does a person cope? And how about her friends, who want to give support?

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I found some answers in the book, Journal: A Mother and Daughter's Recovery from Breast Cancer. It is a collection of intimate photographs of actress Lynn Redgrave, who was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Her daughter, Annabel, took the pictures over the course of Lynn's mastectomy and chemotherapy treatments. I was so deeply moved that I wanted to know more. And since, like me, they live in New York City, I asked if we could talk in person.

Not a week later I sat with Lynn and 24-year-old Annabel, sharing a pot of real English tea. Lynn, now in remission, looked vibrant and fresh. She was back on Broadway in the play The Constant Wife.

An addition to our group was Viola, the dog Lynn recently adopted from an area shelter. The pooch nestled in Annabel's lap as we three talked.

It was hard to believe I was actually in Lynn Redgrave's apartment. I felt as if I'd grown up with her. In college I'd been charmed by her movie portrayal of the awkward and endearing Georgy Girl and over the years I've admired her in a wide range of movie and stage roles.

To me she was show-business royalty, part of a distinguished British theater family.

I asked her to tell me her story. Close to Christmas in 2002, Lynn noticed what she called a "lumpy feeling" under her right arm. She'd always been in good health, exercised and ate right. "I was one of those people who said, 'Can't happen to me.'"

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But it did. Breast cancer, a mastectomy, months of radiation and chemotherapy.

Three years had passed. Now I listened as Lynn and Annabel told me about some of the "healing tools" they used.

Change Your Focus
At the time of Lynn's diagnosis, Annabel was a photography student at New York's Parsons School of Design. "I wanted to take photographs of my mother," she said. At first it was just an excuse to spend as much time as possible with Lynn.

But eventually Annabel came to think of her pictures as a chronicle, making her mother's cancer part of a journey that included family and friends. A group of photos was published.

Looking at the photos enabled Lynn to see how things appeared through the lens of Annabel's camera. Later she had to think about what journal passages she would include, knowing how much her words might mean to a woman with cancer reading them.

In a way, it was an act of creation in the face of death. That helped her feel less frightened and more in control.

I understood. I have many friends who've created things to help them deal with illness, change or mortality. Some assembled collages, others wrote. Some painted pictures or penned songs.

I thought of my friend Susan in Atlanta, who sculpted while she recovered from breast cancer. As Annabel put it, "Taking creative action gives you the power to transform things, to create even when your body may be failing."