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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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