It was the most challenging role of Lynn Redgrave's life: cancer survivor.
by Mary Ann O'Roark — Posted on Oct 24, 2008
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?
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.'"
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."
Lynn had been a churchgoer, but she said, "I'd never been able to really pray. There was too much chatter going on in my head." Illness made Lynn reach deeper, till she found "a point of quiet inside myself where I could truly connect to a place of comfort."
The day before surgery to remove her right breast, Lynn went into St. Patrick's Cathedral, where she knelt down and prayed. "Tears with my Annabel," she wrote in her journal. "Good-bye to a part of me."
Her prayers brought comfort, but they also gave her "an extraordinary gift." She wrote, "I am seeing things, colours, senses, the world around me so sharply. I am living fully."
And she continued to do so. "Of course there are times to retreat and rest," Lynn said, "but you can't withdraw from everything and everyone."
After Lynn's mastectomy she underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. The whole time, she got on the subway every day and went to the theater where she was starring in the play Talking Heads.
She never missed a show. Not once. She knew she had to keep showing up. Even–especially–during hard times. Showing up can itself be an act of prayer.
It was a strength that came across in her acting. I can vouch that her performance in Talking Heads was riveting, since I saw the show. But I would never have guessed how ill she was at the time.
Link with Something Larger
"Others change your life," Lynn said. "You're part of a community–in communion with–friends and family who help you through difficult times, who have difficult times of their own that you can support them through. You're never alone."
It was a lesson Lynn learned one day when a woman in her church requested prayers for her husband and the 26 others in his unit, who'd just been deployed overseas. "It put my little battle into perspective," Lynn said.
She finished radiation and chemotherapy by July of 2003. Her cancer was under control, but not her emotions. "I didn't want to be thinking about cancer all the time, whether it would come back." But she couldn't help it.
One Sunday in Florida to appear in a play, Lynn happened upon a church. Something urged her to go in. The congregation was in the middle of a communion service. Lynn joined the line.
After the service, the minister caught up with Lynn. "When you took the chalice I saw how pale you were," she said. "Would you like to talk?"
Lynn visited her later that week and blurted out everything: the cancer, her fear of it recurring, how unsure things sometimes seemed.
They talked about how Lynn now could be an example of optimism and resilience to women and families faced with breast cancer, how she could turn her difficult time into good for others.
That reminded me of a friend who was nearly killed in a terrible accident. While recovering from her injuries, she attended a prayer group. It was there that she realized, "It wasn't all about me. It was about being part of something larger, linking with everyone who needed healing."
Engaging fully with life, work, loved ones was for Lynn "a form of prayer" too. "My cancer turned out to be life-affirming," she says. Today she is "like a two-year-old" living "full out, no regrets. I'd been saying I wanted a dog but had been putting it off. Finally I went and adopted one."
I reached out my hand to pet Viola, still on Annabel's lap. The sense of communion I felt stayed with me after I left. We help one another heal, I thought. When I got home, I called my friend with breast cancer and told her what I'd learned.
Find more inspiring stories about breast cancer.