SONG OF SURVIVAL
Music, medicine and love help an actress battle
"I have a power in singing--I reach people, and people reach me,"
says Laurie Beechman. The 41-year-old singer with a 3-1/2-octave range
has made that point time and again during her 15 years on Broadway (where
she earned a 1982 Tony nomination as the Narrator in Joseph and the
Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and starred as Grizabella in Cats
in 1984) as well as on her three solo albums. "My singing," she says,
"is an affirmation that I am alive."
Music took on even greater meaning for Beechman in 1989, when she was
diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Because it is one of the deadliest forms
of malignancy--it claims the lives of 12,000 women each year, and symptoms
do not appear until the cancer has spread--Beechman immediately underwent
a hysterectomy, followed by 10 months of chemotherapy.
Born in Philadelphia, Beechman is the second of three daughters of the
late Gino Beechman, an opera singer and restaurateur, and his ex-wife
Dolly, a retired Penn State drama teacher turned playwright. Dolly has
long been her daughter's biggest fan--even when Beechman, eager to break
into show business, dropped out of New York University after her sophomore
year in 1974. These days, Beechman considers Dolly and her second husband,
Nathan Schnall, along with. Beechman's husband of 2-1/2 years, Neil
Mazzella, 44, a Broadway set builder, "my greatest support system."
Beechman is currently promoting her latest CD, The Andrew Lloyd Webber
Album, released this spring. "My middle name is Hope," she says.
"My mother named me well." Beechman spoke with correspondent Denise
Lynch at her ranch-style home outside Manhattan.
I didn't notice any symptoms until October 1988. I was in Florida doing
Dangerous Music, in which I played a rock singer, and it was
a very arduous show. In Act I, I was in a choreographed rape scene,
and Act II had an 11-minute, eight-song rock segment. I was very tired
and had to nap every day. I couldn't separate how physical the show
was from how I was actually feeling. I'd had a complete pelvic exam
the month before, and everything was fine. I have no family history
of ovarian cancer, so at first I didn't suspect that there was anything
By the time my mother and Nate came to see me in November, my guts hurt--not
in any specific place, just a dull, chronic pain. So two months later,
when I went to Philadelphia to join the national tour of Les Miserables,
I saw a gastroenterologist. He felt something suspicious in my abdomen
and ordered a CAT scan and sonogram. Somehow I knew it was something
serious, and sure enough the doctor said that the test results indicated
I needed exploratory surgery. Gynecological cancer was the primary possibility.
Otherwise he said it might be benign cysts covering all my abdominal
organs. I had no idea what surgery was going to be like, and I couldn't
have survived it without my mom and Nate. He's a gynecologist, and he
orchestrated everything. I was prepared for a hysterectomy--I was 35
and had already come to terms with not having children. My main concern
was to recover.
Everything happened so fast, I was in shock. During the operation, which
happened a week later in Philadelphia, the surgeon found numerous tumors
on my colon and throughout my reproductive system. He removed my ovaries,
uterus and appendix, and a six-inch section of my bowel. When I came
to, he told me it was cancer, that they had removed the largest tumors--the
biggest was six centimeters--and that chemotherapy would take care of
the rest. He didn't use the word "cured" or say it wouldn't happen again.
I didn't get hysterical or think about dying. I was thinking about what
I had to do to live.
That included 10 months of chemotherapy. Every four weeks I would check
into the hospital for two days, where a combination of two drugs, cisplatin
and cytoxan, were administered through an intravenous catheter implanted
in my chest. I'd throw up a couple of times with each treatment and
intially lost 15 pounds, which I soon regained. And my hair fell out--which
can be devastating, but it's not at the top of the list of upsetting
things. Plus I compensated for it by getting into wigs and new clothes.
I developed numbness in my hands and feet, which later went away, and
suffered some permanent hearing loss--but nothing life-altering. It
never affected my career. Once my treatments ended, I did Joseph
and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in Philadelphia for two months.
That was followed by six months in Les Mis on Broadway. It felt
like a miracle--I'd feared I'd never be on a Broadway stage again. In
1990 I also recorded my first solo album, Listen to My Heart.
Every three months I'd have a checkup, a CAT scan and a CA 125 blood
test, which measures levels of a certain protein that is present in
more than 80 percent of those with ovarian cancer. Every test came back
normal. But when I went for my checkup in January 1991, the doctors
told me that a spot they had been tracking near one of my adrenal glands,
next to the kidneys, had grown. I was pretty shell-shocked. I had no
symptoms and felt fine. I remember sitting in my mother's kitchen and
just crying. No organs had to be removed, but I did need six chemotherapy
treatments, this time as an outpatient. For a few days after each dose
I'd feel exhausted and nauseous, but I managed to keep all my singing
In September 1991, when the chemo was over, I joined Cats on
Broadway for six weeks and then joined Les Mis again in Philadelphia
over Christmas. As the new year began, I remember thinking, "I feel
great. Life is wonderful. Wouldn't it be great to be in love?" Then
in March 1992 a friend invited me to New York City for Neil's birthday
party. Neil had built the set for Cats, and we'd been friends for 10
years. I hadn't seen him for a while, and at his party we fell in love.
It was an enchanted courtship. We got married in October and, after
a honeymoon in Paris, I moved into his house. Neil walked into this
with his eyes open. He accepted the fact that cancer was part of my
life. We didn't dwell on it. And living with it doesn't require discussion.
He is one of the miracles in my life. When I crack a grin, he's right
there--and he's there when I'm a mess too.
Our first year of marriage was a peak. So was '93 and '94. I had a 3-1/2-year
remission, work was great, and Neil and I were madly in love. Then last
January, as I was recording the Webber album, I went in for my six-month
checkup, and doctors discovered a tumor in my pelvis. I went to Memorial
Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City for a second opinion,
and again surgery, followed by chemotherapy, was recommended. I finished
the album the week before--determined that whatever I faced, it would
not interfere with that.
Though Neil and I always knew a recurrence was possible, we were tremendously
disappointed. I had had no symptoms. My CA 125 levels were only slightly
elevated. I kept telling him how sorry I was. But Neil's tremendous
faith in God gave him such strength that it helped me too.
Because I'd been in remission before, the doctors thought I'd succeed
again, this time with six treatments of taxol, a chemotherapy drug made
from the Pacific yew tree, and currently the best hope for women with
ovarian cancer. I couldn't wait to start. In that taxol bottle I saw
life. The first dose was on Feb 6. Afterward I felt beaten up. With
taxol I have some joint pain--it's like getting the flu once a month--and
I haven't found anything to completely eradicate the nausea. If I eat
the wrong thing, juice for example, it won't stay down. And my hair
has fallen out again.
But I can work, I can eat, I can party, I can make love. Chemotherapy
has given me a life, and I can live with it. I'm optimistic about survival.
There may be no cure for me, but there is remission. Sure I get depressed.
I would be crazy if I didn't. People ask me how I live with this. I
used to think I was in denial. But I am optimistic. I have no
other way to be. And there are miracles.
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