Farrah Fawcett, bathing-beauty 70's icon who's 1976 poster featuring Fawcett in an orange one-piece and famous "flip" hairstyle is STILL the top selling poster worldwide, and infamous for her role as one of Charlie's Angels, the original television series that aired in the 1970's about three female super-agents, battled cancer for two years before her body succumbed to the disease. She bravely documented her two-year struggle, allowing cameras in the private spaces most cancer patients don't want to share. For Fawcett, her goal wasn't about more fame, she knew what her prognosis was. She wanted the world to see what a cancer diagnosis REALLY means. She also wanted other cancer patients to not feel so alone. Noble. That's what I'd call her last acts on Earth. Noble.
If you've never had cancer, you're lucky. I've had it three times and I'm not even 40 yet. What struck me most was Fawcett's private narratives with the camera, where in a stream-of-conscious fashion, Fawcett revealed her hopes, dreams, fears, and ultimately, strength.
One particular narrative caught me, especially with my cancer background. Fawcett is in the midst of learning about her options and pursuing treatments that are literally killing her with the hope that somehow, the treatments will also kill the cancer, and she can rebound from the half-life she was living back to her previous vitality. Fawcett wasn't even looking at the camera when she said it. It wasn't a performance; it was a real moment in the life of a woman, not the celebrity persona, struggling with existential issues in the face of what I call acute mortality. "I don't want to die from this disease." A single sentence and the most compelling.
Fawcett, then 60-years old, didn't say, "I don't want to die." She wasn't a coward, far from it. She said she didn't want to die from her disease. BIG difference. Cancer was her enemy. She had the will to survive, to beat it. She wasn't denying her humanity, she was denying the disease, even in the midst of a struggle most of us would have given up on.
Fawcett was first diagnosed in 2006. It was a malignant polyp; Fawcett had surgery followed by chemotherapy and was declared cancer-free four months later. And the thing is, I think Fawcett believed it. "Cancer-free" is a myth. Once diagnosed with a malignancy, your doctors should tell you that the chances of return are good. Cancer begins at the cellular level and can really only be detected once enough of those cells grow into a polyp or a kind of tumor. In other words, it's impossible to detect cancer through scans at its very earliest stages, so no one can ever truly say "cancer-free" because doctors are not gods. They cannot see things at the cellular level. And in May of 2007, this reality would hit Fawcett and her family and friends hard.
Just months after her 60th birthday, Fawcett learned a new malignancy had developed in the same area as the one previously removed. It's devasting to hear about recurrence. You practically die to live, putting your body, mind and soul through the wringer with things like surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, and ultimately, for what may be only a very brief window. It almost seems worthwhile if you get a decade or so, but four months??? Fawcett, a true Amazon, was undaunted.
No longer satisfied with conventional treatments, she traveled as far as Germany to undergo new experimental medicine in the field. At first, her cancer looked as if it was responding. Unfortunately, it wasn't.
Fawcett had stage four cancer. Cancer has a staging system ranging from one to four, one being the most mild form of malignancy and four being fatal. It is very unusual for a patient with any kind of stage four cancer, the point at which the cancer metastasizes or spreads, to live for more than 2-4 years after initial diagnosis--there are always exceptions, but the facts are still the facts. Usually, those 2-4 years are spent in perpetual treatment--it's not as though the patient even has any relief or real quality of life. And Fawcett's courageous documentary shows this.
However, if you're reading this and thinking, then why bother? Think again.
Predicting the staging of a tumor can be tricky. Doctors often get it wrong...because cancer is at the cellular level and at that level, there are a lot of blurry lines.
And to get a diagnosis and do nothing is truly counterintuitive. As soon as you learn you could die, you want to live--you want to live more than anything else in the world. And you will DO ANYTHING to make that happen...even if it means living a only a half-life until your ultimate death.
As a cancer researcher and writer, and, patient, I've heard from family and friends of cancer patients who both support this final fight for a chance at full life, and who also criticize it, judging a "lack of courage" on the part of the patient. Frankly, to accuse anyone going through cancer of not being courageous is ludricous. It just is. You simply can't judge a cancer patient's decisions--because any that patient makes is what is best for the patient--the person actually physically dealing with the disease. Such accusations reflect a lack of courage on the part of the criticizer, more so than the patient. But it is hurtful to patients when they do not get full support from family and friends. And let's face it, anyone dealing with cancer is not looking at an extened lifetime. Years are taken away with each diagnosis. So treat those people with the utmost respect, care and love--your feelings don't really matter
anymore--it 's now about making the ptient's remaining time on the planet better. Period.
And of course, for Fawcett, those people included her friend, Alana Stewart, who helped Fawcett with her documentary, and Ryan O'Neal, the man Fawcett had a romantic relationship with for years and the father of her only son, Redmond. O'Neal had proposed to Fawcett many times, but months before her death, she finally accepted.
So while yesterday's news was littered with stories about Michael Jackson and his children...what they are doing now...remembering Jackson's more popular music and performances...there was very little mention of Farrah Fawcett. Cancer isn't sexy, and the fickle pop culture audience wants to be entertained, not "brought down" by true tragedy. And by the way, I love Michael Jackson's music--I was 13 when his Thriller album debuted. Blown away by the new sound, the new vibe, the new, well, everything, I wanted to be just like Jackson...silver glove and all. But Michael Jackson as a public figure became increasingly difficult to support. Accused of pedophilia, debacles with marriages, questions surrounding his children, the multitude of financial difficulties, the plastic surgeries...Jackson, despite his many talents, was a person who had clearly lost his way. And though Jackson's father has filed a wrongful death suit against Jackson's personal physician, Conrad Murray, Jackson had been using this very dangerous method of drug-induced sleep for sometime. The body is not meant to deal with that kind of perpetual assault to the system and remain healthy. If you take sleeping pills, like Ambien, it is NOT the same thing...not at all.
I found the juxtaposition of Jackson's death with Farrah Fawcett's, two big celebrities who died on the same day, very telling. Very telling. A year later, In 2010, we, as a society, have grown emotional callouses so hard, we can't even shed a real tear. It's all about watching Thriller videos, and looking at paparazzi photos of Jackson's children having fun in Hawaii. There was only the briefest mention of Fawcett--a quick, "Fawcett, whose son Redmond was jailed at the time of her death, died of cancer last year; here's a clip of her documentary on her cancer experience."
Maybe Dante was right. Maybe life is nothing more than some divine comedy...a cosmic joke. It certainly feels like it sometimes. Our celebrity-focused culture is so flawed...nihilistic even. Life is only as good as the celebrity you acheive or the celebrity you aspire to be. Mansions, money, drugs, alcohol, bling...that's not life.
The irony is that Fawcett, even while living a half-life in between toxic cancer treatments during her last two years on Earth, lived more than most healthy people do in a lifetime. She felt more. She thought more. She understood more. She evolved. How many of us can say that?
Until next time, dearest readers....