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If you've been in extreme circumstances- it doesn't have to be cancer, it can be the death of a spouse, AIDS, anything- and you've been lucky enough to survive, it's incumbent on you to live the best possible life. What's the point otherwise?

-Laurie Beechman, as quoted in The Washington Post, 1996

 

Westchester Q&A: Laurie Beechman; Help in the Fight Against Ovarian Cancer


To some it may look as if Laurie Beechman has made it, both professionally and personally.

The singer and actress, who lives in Greenburgh, is currently rehearsing as the lead in a new Broadway-bound musical, "C'mon and Hear," opening at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., on March 22. She has had starring roles in Broadway productions of "Cats" and "Annie," among others, and has made successful albums. And in 1992, she married for the first time.

But much of this almost didn't happen. Five years ago, Ms. Beechman was told she had late-stage ovarian cancer, and two years later a doctor told her she had just two years to live.

Today Ms. Beechman feels well, and "making it" to her includes being a founding member and on the board of directors of Gilda's Club, an organization formed to help cancer patients find support during their illnesses. The organization is named for the comedian Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer. It is to open on Houston Street in Manhattan in April.

Here are excerpts from a recent conversation with Ms. Beechman:

Q. Your career was going very well in the late 1980's when you were diagnosed with cancer. Tell me about it.

A. I had just done a rock-and-roll record, had been in "Cats," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and then was supposed to do "Les Miserables." This was at the end of 1988. I had been in Florida doing a show, and I didn't feel so great while I was there. It was such a physical show. I just thought I had been thrown around so much that my muscles were tired. I felt like I had been hit by a truck. I would walk down the street and every time my heels hit the pavement my guts ached. When I was driving in a car and hit a bump, I felt as if my guts were going to explode.

I came back to New York and started to rehearse for "Les Miz." My stepfather, who is an obstetrician-gynecologist, scheduled a CAT scan for me. We never thought it would be something serious. We thought maybe it was a gallbladder problem. I had the CAT scan, and they couldn't say definitely what it was, but they suspected something was not good. Surgery was scheduled for a few days later.

Q. What specifically were the doctors telling you at this point?

A. They suspected something serious, but they don't like to actually say it's cancer until they operate on you. I had had a regular checkup just four months before, and everything then had been perfectly normal. Now here it was January 1989, and I was in Stage 3 ovarian cancer. That was like a cancer explosion. It was that quick.

Q. How did you cope with all this?

A. It's hard to put it into words. It's just as people describe it -- it's like a dream. It felt like I was dreaming a nightmare and I wasn't going to wake up from it. I was very lucky that my stepfather had dealt with a lot of such cases.

I had the surgery in Philadelphia, a complete hysterectomy, and they took out my appendix as a precaution because it's kind of a magnet for certain diseases. And I had a bowel resection since my tumor was on the colon. It was about a six-week recovery from the surgery, and a week from the day of the surgery I had my first chemotherapy treatment.

They give you a film. I watched it alone, and they start out with a woman with a turban on her head and they slowly unwrap it. And she's bald. I still had my hair at that point. You look at this film and you cannot believe that this is going to happen to you.

Q. Did they actually tell you you were a terminal case at one point?

A. It was weird. When I was first operated on, the doctor said, you will do well. What that means, God only knows. I had eight- to nine months' chemotherapy, and I began to feel better. I went into "Les Miz" for six months after finishing the chemotherapy -- a year to the time I was supposed to have been in it originally. I did an album. I felt great.

The doctors had been tracking something near my adrenal glands, and I was back in the hospital in February 1992. I had a very isolated tumor and had to have horrendous surgery. It was a tumor that might have been there from the beginning but they had never caught it.

The doctor told me at the time that I would have eight more months of chemotherapy and I would lose my hair again. I had 25 staples down my right side when a doctor sat with me and said, "I think you have two years to live."

I thought maybe I was just high, that I was imagining that he was telling me this. He had asked my sisters to leave the room and when they came back I said that the doctor says, I have maybe two years to live. Everybody was shocked that he would say this to me. Like my stepfather says, only the good Lord knows how much time anyone has. No doctor has the right to say that to a patient. We fired the doctor.

So I got through the chemo and went to Italy to sing and to the French Alps, and did so many things and started feeling good.

Q. Did you have to force yourself to do these things, or is that your personality?

A. I think my natural drive is to be working and to push myself. I would thank God that I was in show business because it made me very vain about how I looked. When I couldn't control what was happening inside, it helped me to put a lot of attention on my physical appearance. I wanted people to see that I was functioning, that I was viable.

My mother was really the most important person as far as keeping my spirits up. I was busy, but I was frightened all the time. I'm still frightened. I don't think dying is nearly as terrible as being sick. You suffer beyond your own suffering because you see your family suffer. I would see it in my mom's face. When I would have a good day or take a stride, it was the most joyful, wonderful thing.

Q. Are you well now?

A. I hit my five-year mark Jan. 13. That's miraculous, and I've been in good health since the end of '91 and we are in 1994 now.

Q. Is Gilda Radner's sudden death from ovarian cancer more typical of the way the illness goes?

A. From what I understand, it's just an insidious disease because it doesn't manifest itself in any way that you might suspect. Me, I had thought something was wrong with my stomach. By the time it gets diagnosed, it's often too late.

Q. How did you get involved in helping other cancer patients through their ordeals?

A. In 1992, I was on a train reading People Magazine and there was an open letter from Anne Moore, the publisher, about Gilda's Club. When I had been ill I had read Gilda's book, and even before I became ill I had actually read articles about her illness, never dreaming I would have the same diagnosis. When I was ill, I had tried unsuccessfully to find some support group. This article said that they were going to establish a Gilda Club in New York, and I got together with the executive director and became involved as a founding member, as has my husband.

Q. Is this a support group for women with ovarian cancer?

A. No, not just that. It's a psychological support group for cancer patients and their families -- men, women, children and their families. It's for everybody. There have been many support groups for women with breast cancer. Unfortunately, there has been a need for that. But by definition of my illness, I couldn't be part of those groups.

Gilda's Club is a more general thing. Having cancer is a very isolating experience. I have two women friends out here who I have never met who have ovarian cancer. We talk on the phone. When I was going through this, I didn't have anybody to talk to who had been through this, not a soul.

It's a blessing that I now can help these two women. It makes me feel good. This is a part of my life that a lot of people can't relate to. I don't want to walk around and say, "Hi, I'm Laurie Beechman, and I had ovarian cancer." But there's a bond between those of us who have.

Q. Do you find it hard to talk about your illness?

A. Yes. I can't imagine it's easy for anyone. It's funny, but I don't think about the details of what happened to me on a day-to-day basis. But when I do, things come back that I haven't thought about -- little moments, scary moments, going through the machines and the prayers you say, the good luck charms and the bad things that happen when you are sick and you have to have an ambulance take you to the hospital.

But my life has been so unbelievably blessed in spite of everything and maybe because of it. I got married after two bouts of cancer. I have this whole different life and a career. I'm really like everybody else.



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