Pioneering actress Diahann Carroll shares the story of the road that has led from a private moment of diagnosis and self-reflection to a very public, country-wide campaign to educate women about the importance of breast cancer screening.
By Diana Price
“You know there’s a certain combination of arrogance and humility that one must have to be in show business I believe—I mean to live life of course—but another level of it to be in show business,” Diahann Carroll tells me, speaking from her home in Los Angeles. And if there’s anyone who should know what it takes to succeed in the business, it would certainly be Diahann, who, at 70, is a legend of the stage and screen.
As the first African American woman to star in her own sitcom (“Julia,” 1968, for which she won a Golden Globe Award) and in her film and stage performances—which have garnered a Tony Award (“No Strings,” 1962) as well as Emmy, Grammy, and Oscar nominations—Diahann has taken on powerful roles and claimed a presence for African American women in the entertainment industry. And she is showing no signs of slowing her pace. Recent appearances on the popular ABC drama “Grey’s Anatomy” and her successful cabaret show last spring at New York City’s Feinstein’s have kept her very much in the spotlight.
But what the actress is referring to, in describing the qualities present in dedicated performers, is how these aspects of her personality were affected when she was presented with perhaps the most challenging role of her career—and her life—when she was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago: “[My breast cancer experience] not only helped to tap into my humility, but also the ability to share with others. I’m not very good at sharing personal anything. But this taught me how to do this so we could all reap the benefits of whatever it was that was available to me that might not be available to everyone else. And I think that it opened me up to my benefit in a very loving way.”
With no family history of breast cancer, and no physical symptoms, Diahann was diagnosed with a small, non-invasive tumor in her right breast through a routine mammogram. She was shocked by the news but approached the problem with a sense of pragmatic determination that one can’t help but think has helped her overcome many of the challenges she has confronted. “The initial reaction I think for many of us is almost the kind of shock that you don’t recognize because you know you have to keep up your daily routine, your behavior, your responsibilities. You realize it, but it doesn’t allow you to make a true emotional connection with the fact that you’ve heard the words malignant cancer.”
Once she did allow herself to process the news, Diahann says, she was ready to take care of business: “I don’t think I ever permitted myself the right to cry because I’m a problem solver. You know, there are people like that in the world. I thought, this must be thought of as a problem that must be resolved—let’s not take the thought any further than that.”
For a woman who for so much of her career has been a symbol of glamour and whose voice conveys the aristocratic, practiced cadence of a show business diva, this steely determination that slices through as Diahann now tells her story creates another dimension. There is no sign of a catered-to celebrity here, only the elegant, spirited voice of a woman who has a message to deliver and work left to do. And it’s in this vein that she continues.
Having determined to get to work solving the problem, Diahann was confronted with the physical reality of her treatment, which would ultimately involve a lumpectomy and ten weeks of radiation therapy. Her positive, pragmatic approach carried her along, she says, but was put to the test when—in the middle of her treatments—she contracted chicken pox. “It was very frightening,” Diahann remembers. “I thought, I’m being over-tested here.” Still, she realized that she had to force herself to put all that fear aside and push on to get through what the situation demanded. It was a trying time physically and psychologically.
Though Diahann was very aware that she was involved in a personal endeavor as she managed her diagnosis and treatment and coped with the psychological impact of the situation, she was also aware from the beginning that her diagnosis could have a wider impact. For that reason Diahann felt compelled, after the shock of the diagnosis wore off, to make her story public. “It required two to three days for me to assess how my life had changed—in one moment—as soon as I learned that I had to face the reality of having breast cancer. Then I realized, through some very knowledgeable and caring friends, that it would be very useful if I shared this information.” Encouraged by friends and by her own desire to publicize the life-saving information about breast cancer screening, Diahann began to speak openly about her experience.
Especially significant, Diahann feels, is her impact in minority communities. Recently, she has devoted much of her advocacy work to speaking to groups in these communities about the importance of early detection and prevention, witnessing firsthand the value of face-to-face contact not only with the African-American community but also with the Asian and Hispanic women who come to hear her speak. “There is more reluctance in those communities,” Diahann says, to get the crucial regular mammograms, and she is determined to make women aware of the importance of the test that saved her life. “There’s nothing that helps us to find information like that machine.”
What Diahann didn’t know, when she decided to take her personal breast cancer experience to communities around the country, is what an incredible journey it would become. “It has been quite an experience traveling around this country and learning about different communities and different pockets of Americana and the racial mixture and the cultural mixtures and how the responses change as you move from culture to culture,” Diahann says. “I ran into one community where many women at the luncheon wanted more information about the [mammogram] machine itself than anyone had asked before—what did I feel the machine offered; would it provide total recovery; was it dangerous in itself?” Each time she is offered the opportunity to interact with a new group of women, Diahann says, she is amazed to see the different cultural myths and perceptions that emerge around the disease and the medical system.
One of the benefits that she feels she can provide by speaking about her own lucky early detection story is to demystify a process that for many minority women can present an intimidating medical scenario. By explaining the process, describing her own fears, and clarifying the technicalities that are in many communities simply not discussed, Diahann says, she is able to make mammography and the medical system of which they are a part seem much more accessible.
Ultimately the opportunity to get the information out to these communities is the most important thing. In some cases, she says, she has been amazed by the “ignorance of the importance of the yearly mammogram,” and attributes the gap to a widespread lack of availability of education about medical screening and prevention in many minority communities, which keeps women from receiving proper care. In some cases she says, “there are some women who are afraid actually of the machine itself.” And, she continues, often, women are intimidated by all aspects of the process—where they have to go to find the information and where the screening itself is administered, never mind the testing itself. Here she has found, again, that her pragmatic, straight-forward approach serves her well: “I explain to everyone now that I loathe going myself but that I have to go and so do they.”
There are inroads being made, Diahann notes, in making information about breast cancer available to these communities. Individuals, like herself, and larger organizations who can have face-to-face contact with community groups and are getting the message in front of people and are making headway. It’s imperative, Diahann says, that we continue these efforts to “get the information to [these communities] and let them know that early detection should be the first thing you say to yourself in the morning.” And Diahann is determined to help keep the message front and center: “I don’t want the attention to be drawn away from this so that we’re not spending the money that must be spent and giving it the kind of attention that it needs.”
To further her efforts of bringing attention to the topic, this past summer, Diahann helped launch a Web site dedicated to educating postmenopausal women about breast cancer risk factors so that they can communicate more effectively about their risk with their healthcare team. The site, Strength in Knowing: The Facts and Fiction of Breast Cancer Risk (www.strengthinknowing.com) is sponsored by the National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health and Eli Lilly and Company. “I believe so in what [this project] is doing,” Diahann says, of the campaign’s goal of educating and empowering women. Her work with the Web site is a natural fit with the other advocacy work she has been involved with for the American Cancer Society and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, and it inspires her to work with such dedicated organizations.
As we discuss her advocacy work and her commitment to educating women who are not aware of the benefits of screening, it’s very clear that Diahann feels deeply her place of privilege as a woman who was fortunate enough to be educated about her health and to be diagnosed early as a result. The entire experience, in fact, provided opportunities for her to feel gratitude for the many blessings in her life—chief among them, during her treatment, a wonderful group of loving and supportive friends who helped her process the diagnosis and remained a source of strength throughout.
It was incredibly touching, Diahann says, to feel the love of her friends as they coordinated driving her to appointments, went out to lunch with her after her treatments, and took care to see her home and comfortable after each appointment. “I can never tell you what that meant to me,” she says. “It was so pure. Their spirit was so lovely. They were acknowledging the fear that I had, but also that my time now was very precious and that it was important that I enjoy as much as I can and that we enjoy each other. I think that was as important as the radiation.”
Also very meaningful, Diahann says, were the phone calls she received from other women in the entertainment industry who made a point to offer their support—and their own survivor stories. Especially, she says, in light of the apprehension she had about how her illness would impact her career. “I do thank the women in the industry who were kind enough to call to say to me they thought it was the greatest thing [that I went public with my story] because they would share with me that they had breast cancer but they would not share it with the public.” She understands their fear because she too worried about how her news would be received: “I understand that [fear] because there is so much pressure put upon us to be “attractive” and desirable—we still have that sexist thing to overcome. It is not that thing that our producers, directors, and CEOs really want to hear, but eventually they are going to hear it anyway.”
In Diahann’s case, her decision to make the news public and to share her story with women around the country has allowed her to share the benefit of her own experience and her gratitude, and has opened her up personally in a way she never expected. “That’s what I would say is the positive that can come from this kind of experience in life,” she says. And there is no doubt, with the energy and dedication for life and for this cause that Diahann exudes, that she has much more positive work left to do.