The Road Less Taken

Television and film star — and breast cancer survivor — Maura Tierney chooses a very public path to aid others stricken with the disease

For anyone, a cancer diagnosis is undoubtedly a life-altering event. From that moment on, the path ahead can be an arduous one, fraught with shock, denial, despair and uncertainty.

But for celebrities — men and women whose lives are played out daily on entertainment TV shows, in magazines and the tabloids — such a diagnosis often presents an added burden: how to keep their illness and struggles to overcome it private, and away from the probing public eye.

Or perhaps not to.

For breast cancer survivor Maura Tierney, that decision was itself nearly as life changing as the day three years ago when she sat in a doctor’s office and was told she had the disease.

Fast-Track Success

Tierney’s biography reads like a quintessential success story—comfortable childhood in a close-knit family followed by a steady rise through the acting ranks toward early fame. Born in a Boston suburb in 1965, she’s the eldest daughter of a prominent Irish-Catholic politician and his realtor wife. She attended a Catholic school in Massachusetts and later New York University, where she studied dance and drama.

In New York, she also honed her craft at the renowned Circle in the Square Theatre School. Following a number of appearances in several New York plays and films, she moved to Los Angeles where, in 1987, she began her professional career with a role in a made-for-TV movie. In between parts in films and live theater, she soon began cherry-picking TV roles in sitcoms and other series, culminating with her decision to join the cast of one of the most popular dramas in television history, “ER.” On that long-running series, she was thrust into the limelight as one of the show’s most endearing characters, Abby Lockhart. A string of film and TV star turns followed, further solidifying Tierney’s reputation.

Fate intervened in her fast-track career, however, when, in June of 2009, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. A series of mammograms and a biopsy confirmed the diagnosis. “I wasn’t totally blind-sided because I had found a lump,” she explains. Nevertheless, she adds, “It’s very shocking to be told you have cancer . . . it’s bizarre; you think this is never going to happen to you — especially when you’re 42.”

Tierney says she was equally shocked to learn that she also required three months of regular chemotherapy following her surgery. “It’s scary to have surgery, scary to have to go through a course of chemotherapy; I don’t know if I could pick the very worst moment — it was all a trying time.”

Thankfully, following her diagnosis, Tierney was able to draw strength from a network of friends and family who gave her much-needed support. She soon underwent surgery, opting to receive what’s called a “skin-sparing mastectomy.” Also known as breast-conserving surgery, it’s a procedure that saves the skin over the breast, leaving it intact for later reconstruction.

Taking it Public

At first, Tierney opted to keep the details of her cancer treatment private but later, she found herself at a crossroads when she received an interesting offer from Amgen, a California-based biotech company. Amgen is dedicated to, as its website describes, “bringing safe, effective medicines from lab, to manufacturing plant, to patient.” Representatives of the company invited Tierney to serve as spokesperson for its Chemotherapy: Myth or Facts campaign.

The campaign’s main purpose is to debunk common misconceptions associated with chemotherapy, and encourage patients and caregivers to take charge of their cancer journey by speaking openly with their doctors. As Tierney was aware, accepting Amgen’s offer would, of course, put her struggle with the disease on the media’s “front page,” turning the tide of her private struggle and exposing her illness and treatment to millions of people.

It didn’t take Tierney long to make a decision. “I don’t know . . . for some reason this [Amgen offer] just spoke to me because I had been so anxious myself about having to undergo the chemotherapy,” she explains. Still, she adds, deciding to go entirely public was difficult for her. “It’s not easy because I’m such a private person. But I knew this campaign would be helpful to other people like me who were anxious about receiving the treatment that I was.” Besides, she adds, the spokespersonship is paying her quite a bit of money, all of which she is donating to UCLA cancer research.

For people who have been diagnosed with cancer and facing chemotherapy as a treatment, Tierney’s message is straightforward: “If they go to the website, hopefully there will be helpful information there that will guide them through speaking to their doctors and urging them to have open communication with them to get as much information as they can. That way, they can better manage and take control of their treatment.”

“When I was going through my cancer treatment, I learned that you can never ask a stupid question,” Tierney says. “I asked every stupid question that came to mind, and I believe that it helped me to calm my own anxiety.”

Knowing what questions to ask your doctor is key, Tierney says. “Asking such things as ‘What is the goal of my treatment?’ ‘What kinds of changes will I have to make while I’m going through chemotherapy?’ These and many others can help ease the burden and some of the uncertainty of chemo.”

As Tierney points out, the Amgen campaign aims to set the record straight on many misconceptions surrounding chemotherapy-based cancer treatment. Among them is the common belief that you shouldn’t eat fruits or vegetables while undergoing chemo, or that you should avoid close contact with other people during treatment. Both are myths, according to Amgen. In the former example, while it is true that some people might need to restrict certain foods from their diet during chemo, in many cases fruits and vegetables are perfectly acceptable. And, as to contact with others, common sense dictates that while it might be advisable to steer clear of people with infectious illnesses (a cold or flu, for example), it certainly doesn’t mean that you have to isolate yourself from human contact. “It’s important to listen to your body and recognize when you’re feeling unwell,” the Amgen campaign tells us.

In all cases, Tierney emphasizes, it’s important to consult a physician when any uncertainty occurs. “We are encouraging patients to take charge of their journey by speaking with the expert–their doctor–about the concerns they may have,” Tierney explains. “We want [them] to ask a lot of questions. It’s important they feel educated and confident during this time.”

Looking Ahead

Her own treatment now completed, Tierney this month begins a guest-starring role on CBS’ award-winning series “The Good Wife,” placing her in front of the camera again with her former “ER” co-star, Julianna Margulies. With a number of other acting projects on tap, Tierney gets a yearly MRI and mammogram and is focused on maintaining her health. Still, she remains circumspect about her illness and takes a realistic, “one-day-at-a-time” approach to the future.

“I’m feeling very good right now . . . so far so good,” is as much as she will say.

Category: Survivors in the News

Tags: “ER”, “The Good Wife”, Amgen, breast cancer survivor, breast-conserving surgery, Bruce Farr, cancer research, CancerForward Survivor in The News, Chemotherapy: Myth or Facts, mammogram, Maura Tierney, MRI, UCLA