Cancer and the Cast of Charlie’s Angels
CANCER, THE ANGELS, AND CHARLIE
The courageous stories of the stars’ fight against cancer
“Kate experienced breast cancer, I experienced breast cancer, and then Farrah, you know, anal cancer. So, Farrah in her humor said, what was it, the water we were drinking? And, you know … I mean, she, she maintained her humor, which is hard to do in the face of cancer.” – Jaclyn Smith
So said actress Jaclyn Smith in a 2009 Barbara Walters interview on the death of Farrah Fawcett. It’s true though – Charlie’s Angels’ original cast has indeed been struck by cancer; two of its stars successfully beat the disease and are now survivors, while another two became its victims. First diagnosed was Kate Jackson, followed years later by Jaclyn Smith, and most recently, both Farrah Fawcett’s heavily documented and tragic battle, as well as John Forsythe’s passing from the disease.
For all its fluff and hype, Charlie’s Angels in reality stood as a showcase for positive feminine role models for women of all ages dating from the enormous popularity of the series during its original run, and equally in the years since its disappearance from the airwaves; but the show’s real-life Angels continue to inspire values of courage, strength and enduring friendship that we can all learn from – most especially in the face of a serious challenge.
This section provides the details on each of their struggles, fears and journeys, as well as as their words of advice and encouragement for people in the midst of the same situation.
Diagnosed in 1987 – Breast Cancer
In January, 1987, while starring in her popular television series Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Kate was hit with a premonitory feeling that something was wrong with her body and after repeated warnings to schedule a mammogram, Jackson consulted her doctor, received the first mammogram of her life, and the ensuing biopsy results confirmed her fears – a tiny malignant growth was discovered in her left breast. “It wasn’t a lump,” she said. “It wasn’t even anything that I could feel. It was microscopic.” “I was forced to face, squared up, my own mortality,” Kate said at the time. “I had to decide whether I wanted to live or to die. And if you choose life, as I did, it’s never the same.”
Fellow Angel Jaclyn Smith canceled a flight to New York and rushed to her friend’s side to be with her before checking into the hospital. “I’d been crying before I got there,” said Jaclyn. “Then I saw Kate, and she had a smile on her face. She sensed how I’d been doing and said, ‘Hey, let’s go do it.’ We talked and said, ‘We’ve gotten through some other things, like divorces, and we’ll get through this.’ And we did.”
Four days after the diagnosis, Kate underwent a lumpectomy, in which the malignant tumor and a small amount of healthy breast tissue around it were removed. A year later, Jackson’s follow-up mammogram showed everything was normal. But the following year, another X-ray revealed microscopic cancerous cells in the same breast. Kate immediately underwent surgery to remove part of the breast, then later had reconstructive plastic surgery after her partial mastectomy.
“Fearing how you will look is not something that should keep you away from the doctor,” she said. “Living is more important.”
Now cancer-free for over 20 years, Kate is a spokesperson for breast cancer causes (for which she received the Israel Cancer Research Fund Humanitarian Award in 1999).
“I am very lucky that my cancer was found at such an early stage, when it could be cured, and I hope that there will be other women who will be so lucky,” she says.
GET CHECKED EARLY – Advice From Kate
“Get a mammogram; get it early, and get it yearly,” Kate advises. Certain that the early diagnosis and treatment are what saved her life, Jackson maintains that the issue is crucial, given that about 200,000 American women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year and nearly 40,000 die of the disease.
“I am grateful that my doctor suggested that I have a mammogram when she did and that I woke up one morning and followed that suggestion,” says Jackson.
DIAGNOSIS: BREAST CANCER
A word from Kate Jackson
From The Mammogram Muddle
The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that screening mammograms begin at age 40, earlier if a woman has a symptom of breast cancer or a strong family history. But not all experts agree, starting testing from age 35 to as late as 50.
How to decide? “Find a doctor you trust, who has a good reputation in the medical community,” advises Kate Jackson, “then let that person help you make your decision.” Your physician will take into account your family history, whether you began to menstruate before age 12, whether you entered menopause after age 50, and if you had your first child after age 30 or had no children at all.
Whatever your risk, most experts agree that women should perform monthly breast self-exams (BSEs) beginning at age 20 and have their breasts examined by a health professional every three years between ages 20 and 39. Starting at age 40, tests should be done annually.
The discovery of a lump in the breast is frightening–but fear is not an excuse to avoid self-exams and mammograms. “I know it’s scary,” Jackson says, “but things don’t go away because you ignore them. The earlier you can find what you need to fight, the better the chance to fight it.”
What’s Ahead? Researchers are studying new drugs that stimulate the body’s natural immune defenses to fight breast cancer, as well as surgical techniques, including high-frequency radio waves that destroy breast tumors without surgery. They even hope that many women may one day be able to sidestep the disease altogether with genetic therapies that repair certain changes in breast-cell genes so that they don’t develop into cancer.
As technology becomes more sophisticated, diagnostic methods should improve, too, perhaps ending the controversy about whether routine mammograms save lives. In the meantime, Jackson advises women to follow the advice of their doctors and to listen to their bodies. “I believe your body talks to you,” she says. “You know how you feel. If your body seems to be behaving in a way that you’re not used to, listen to it. It’s always better to listen to your body and find out nothing is wrong than to not listen and wish you had.”
Diagnosed in 2002 – Breast Cancer
Thirteen years after witnessing Kate Jackson’s struggle with the disease, Jaclyn Smith was shocked to discovered a lump of her own in 2002. After hearing her doctor’s diagnosis of breast cancer, she managed to ask a single question: “I said, ‘Am I going to be here for my children?’ He said, ’98 percent, yes.’ “
When she got home from the doctor’s office that day, “I said, ‘Take my breast off.’ I said, ‘Take it off, take it off, take it off.” But Jaclyn’s husband, respected physician Brad Allen, examined studies that showed that with her particular kind of tumor, it was best to do a lumpectomy with radiation.
Thankfully, having caught her condition in its earliest stages, Jaclyn’s treatments did the trick and she won the battle. In the following years, Jaclyn has made it a mission to spread the word about cancer prevention and treatment, even touring the United States speaking to women about breast cancer as a spokeswoman for drug company Eli Lilly.
HEADED TO THE DOCTOR?
Get tested early – and bring a pal – advice from Jaclyn
Smith says: “I thought I knew most of the facts about cancer, I volunteered for the John Wayne Cancer Institute and the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, I’m well informed and I thought I knew everything out there, but I did not know that getting older and being female is the top risk factor for breast cancer . . . so that’s why it is so important to get tested and have a mammogram each year.”
“One of the most important things you can do is remember the power of girlfriends,” Jaclyn says. “Your family is there for you, but they get emotional. Girlfriends saved my day.”
Jaclyn recommends taking along someone who can stay focused in the face of bad news from the doctor. As her doctor gave her the diagnosis, “I was in a state of panic,” she says. “It was kind of surreal, and you don’t really hear what they’re saying.”
The lesson she learned that day: “Don’t go it alone,” she says. Her husband, Brad Allen, who was with her at the doctor’s office, was better able to focus and ask questions about the best treatment options.
She adds: “An illness like this is so personal – you need a good healthcare provider, you need a support network and you need to read up on some of this on your own – I had my mother, a supportive family, but women with breast cancer need support, and a good place to get it is through Strength in Knowing at strengthinknowing.com.”
BREAST CANCER Q & A WITH JACLYN SMITH
An excerpt from “Olivia Newton John, Jaclyn Smith on Surviving Breast Cancer”
By Elizabeth Cohen, CNN
What went through your head when you got the diagnosis?
Fear invaded my whole being because I hadn’t educated myself. I was ready to boom—go into surgery. There is that moment when your world stops spinning and you think, “Wow, I have two kids.” My first question was, “Am I going to be here for my kids?” And my doctor said, “Ninety-eight percent you’re going to be here, so don’t worry. We got this early.” Early detection is the key to a good prognosis. That’s why women need their yearly mammograms and they need to see their doctor regularly.
What treatment did you undergo?
I did a lumpectomy with radiation. But let me tell you something, if a mastectomy was what was called for, I would have had it like that. I’m not about my breasts; I’m just about good health, OK. I’m not afraid of doing what I need to do to stay here. I really don’t understand women who are in denial, who don’t want to go for a mammogram. I think it’s stupidity. Sorry. I have no patience for that.
Why did you want to be part of the Strength in Knowing campaign?
I was lucky because I had girlfriends who had been through breast cancer and a supportive family. But Strength in Knowing will connect women to other women and to information. They can visit the website daily and feel like there’s someone there. That’s important because, hey, it’s pretty traumatic when something like this happens. And attitude is important. You can’t say, “Poor me,” “Why me?” or “Why did this happen to me?” You need to say, “Life is to be enjoyed. It’s to be embraced. It’s a gift.”
What do you wish women knew about breast cancer?
Eighty percent of breast cancer cases are in women 50 and over—just being female and older puts you at risk. Some women get to that point in their life and they think, I have no family history of the disease, this isn’t going to touch me. But the majority of cases are in women who don’t have a family history. I had no family history, and I thought, I’m great, I feel good, nothing’s going cuckoo in my body. You don’t always know.
What do you want to share with women who have also been diagnosed with breast cancer?
I believe in the power of girlfriends. I believe that family and friends, and especially other women, can make a profound difference during cancer treatment.
Your awareness program has touched many. What’s one thing you hope they take away from it?
I was shocked when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002. I did not have a family history. Further, I had no idea that getting older was a risk factor for breast cancer! Did you know that women over age 50 account for almost 80% of all newly diagnosed cases of invasive breast cancer. I encourage all women to know about breast cancer risk factors, including increasing age, personal history and family history.
What can a woman do to become more aware of her own cancer risk?
I urge all women to talk with their healthcare professional about breast health, especially those that are 50 and over. Women should visit www.strengthinknowing.com for information about breast cancer risk factors and tips on how to talk with a healthcare professional about breast cancer risk.
Diagnosed in 2006 – Anal Cancer
On August 27, 2006, Farrah joined original Charlie’s Angels cast mates Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith onstage at the 58th Annual Emmy Awards for a special reunion tribute to the show’s creator Aaron Spelling.
While the reunion was a joy for Farrah, she noted that in the days following the television appearance, she began feeling pain and a general sense of fatigue, but wasn’t sure what was wrong. In September, she went to the doctor for a physical, and just weeks later, the dreadful diagnosis was returned – she had anal cancer.
Farrah took the news bravely, but spent weeks crying – then she went public with her diagnosis stating: “I am resolutely strong and I am determined to bite the bullet and fight the fight while going through the next six weeks of cutting-edge, state-of-the-art treatment. I should be able to return to my life as it was before at the end of my treatment.”
Cases of anal cancer are indeed rare, but if the disease is caught in its first stage, there tends to be an 80 percent curability rate. Farrah’s initial treatment included chemotherapy. Her fellow Angels Jaclyn and Kate stood by for support and friendship. The diagnosis reunited her with on-and-off boyfriend, actor Ryan O’Neal who steadfastly remained Farrah’s constant companion as she went through successful chemotherapy treatments and radiation in late 2006.
Although declared cancer-free on her 60th birthday in February, 2007, Farrah and her family were devastated to learn that the disease had returned just three months later. She received the news after a routine checkup in which doctors discovered a malignant polyp, smaller than a pea.
“The news started to get darker and darker and darker,” said Ryan O’Neal after it was discovered that the disease had spread to Fawcett’s liver. “The hope started to fade. But not for Farrah. She continued fighting. There was always a courage there, and a quiet dignity. Farrah never changed.”
After finding that standard cancer treatments were ineffective in her case, Farrah boldly decided to travel to Germany to seek grueling alternative treatments not available in the United States. She brought along close friend Alana Stewart – and a home video camera to document her journey. Farrah, upon returning home, spearheaded the project and decided to create a full documentary about her experience to share with fellow cancer patients, concerned fans and colleagues.
As her condition worsened, and the outlandish medical treatments were also found to be ineffective, Farrah was dealt a final, heartrending blow – her famously beautiful hair began falling out. “The hair is gone,” reported O’Neal. “Her famous hair. I have it at home. She didn’t care. I rub her head. It’s kind of fun, actually, this great, tiny little head. How she carried all that hair I’ll never know. She doesn’t have a vanity about it.”
On May 13, 2009, an advance screening of the documentary was held, however a weak and heavily medicated Farrah was unable to attend. Entitled “Farrah’s Story”, the film documents Fawcett’s diagnosis, treatments, hopes and fears and stands as both a painful yet uplifting testament to her courage and strength.
“I do not want to die of this disease,” Farrah says in the film. “So I say to God, ‘It is seriously time for a miracle.’”
On the morning of June 25, 2009, Ryan O’Neal announced that while in the hospital’s intensive care unit, Farrah had passed – a mere three hours before the world was doubly-shocked to learn of the loss of Michael Jackson. “After a long and brave battle with cancer, our beloved Farrah has passed away,” O’Neal’s statement read, “Although this is an extremely difficult time for her family and friends, we take comfort in the beautiful times that we shared with Farrah over the years and the knowledge that her life brought joy to so many people around the world.”
Farrah’s fellow Angels paid tribute to their friend the following day:
Kate Jackson:“I will miss Farrah every day. She was a selfless person who loved her family and friends with all her heart, and what a big heart it was. Farrah showed immense courage and grace throughout her illness and was an inspiration to those around her. When I think of Farrah, I will remember her kindness, her cutting, dry wit and, of course, her beautiful smile.”
Jaclyn Smith:“Farrah had courage. she had strength, and she had faith. And now she has peace as she rests with the real angels.”
Cheryl Ladd:“She was incredibly brave, and God will be welcoming her with open arms.”
John Forsythe: “Though I did not know her well, Farrah left an indelible mark on me and the public during her one-year reign on Charlie’s Angels. She put up a gallant fight against her unforgiving disease and I send my deepest sympathy and prayers to her family and friends.”
It is tragically ironic to note that Farrah had served as a powerful celebrity spokesperson for the American Cancer Society for many years, and had lost her older sister, Diane, to lung cancer in 1998.
ABOUT ANAL CANCER (Discussing Farrah’s situation in 2007)
An excerpt from “Farrah Fawcett: Anal Cancer”
By Sarah Kliff, Newsweek
Anal cancer is relatively rare: the American Cancer Society estimates that 4,650 cases will be diagnosed this year. But the organization says the number is rising. Fawcett falls into the demographic most affected by the disease: she’s in her early 60s and female. (Women are slightly more susceptible to anal cancer than men.)
The cancer develops in the tissues of the anus, either in the anal canal or opening. It can cause bleeding, itching, pain or discharge. The exact cause of anal cancer is not known, but it appears to be linked with the human papilloma virus, or HPV (though only a tiny percentage of people with HPV infections will get the cancer). The disease is usually very curable; it causes fewer than 700 deaths each year and the five-year survival rate for those whose anal cancer is detected early is 80 percent.
There are currently three main treatments for anal cancer: surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Fawcett has already used a combination of the three: in October 2006 she had surgery to remove the tumor, followed by a six-week course of chemotherapy and radiation in November and December. After the cancer returned, she reportedly sought alternative therapy in Germany, but she hasn’t disclosed details of the treatment.
Some cases are symptomless but can be detected early by an annual rectal exam, which the American Cancer Society suggests for all men over 50. The American Cancer Society recommends that men over 50 have yearly rectal exams (for women, the rectal exam is typically included in a pelvic exam). Doctors hope that the newly developed HPV vaccine will also prevent anal cancer (as well as cervical cancer) by targeting the strands of HPV that may cause the disease.
Diagnosed in 2006 – Colon Cancer
Veteran actor John Forsythe was perhaps best known as the iconic voice of Charlie Townsend, and later going on to great fame as Blake Carrington, the dapper, ruthless oil tycoon on television’s hit series Dynasty.
Forsythe was initially diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006 after colonoscopy results indicated that he’d developed a malignancy which required immediate surgery. Said his wife, Nicole: “He had no symptoms. But he hadn’t had a colonoscopy for over a decade.”
After having undergone a successful surgery and multiple treatments in Los Angeles, he was thought to have victoriously managed the disease.
Nearly four years later, however, the disease returned, and following a yearlong battle, Forsythe developed pneumonia, resulting in complications – he passed away at age 92 on the day before what would have been Farrah Fawcett’s 63rd birthday.
Time Magazine’s headline read, “Charlie’s An Angel Now,” and saddened friend Cheryl Ladd was quoted as saying: “I’m mourning with the rest of the world for the talented, gorgeous, funny, intelligent John Forsythe. But my heart is broken for the loss of my dear, dear friend and neighbor. I will miss him terribly.”
Diagnosed in 2011 – Skin Cancer
Cheryl Ladd recently revealed her brush with cancer, telling WellBella magazine, “I’m very careful in the sunshine. At this age I’ve had already – because of my love of the sun and beach – a few small skin cancers removed.”