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The Cancer Celebrities and Me

I was 16, lived in Ireland with my family for a year and was very homesick. I was an American teenager and I wanted cracked ice Coca-Cola, lip smackers, sticky fingers jeans. Ireland was still under the provisional rule of the Irish Taliban in the 1970s – even condoms were illegal, I didn’t need one – and there was a television station. It is only broadcast in the evening, from a call to prayer to a daring ecumenical movement: a Catholic priest and a Protestant pastor debated a topic of the day (who won?) For 15 minutes. Then there would be “The Soldier’s Song,” a picture of the tricolor curling in the sunlight, and finally – nothing.

Then one day came the international edition of Time magazine. The photo on the cover had nothing to do with inflation or China. There were three beautiful women – or, more precisely, two beautiful women and one whose beauty was so great that it was almost incomprehensible: Farrah Fawcett.

What was that?

Charlie’s angel. Apparently it was the biggest thing that happened in America and the good men of the time had decided to present the new show as ridiculously mediocre, the women as smoking shows and the overall production as an important statement on the “evolution of women”. Hmm. Women developed! Fawcett may have been a little gloomy – the other angels always had to explain things to her – but she was a star, important enough to be on the cover of Time, and she is supposed to have a clause in her contract that allowed her to “Left the set to rush home in time to make dinner for her husband.” Probably fondue! Followed by Kahlúa coffee and sexual intercourse.

And here I was, trapped in a religious state in the North Atlantic and never been kissed, even though I’d caught scabies from a dirty roll towel at school. Was that as close as I wanted to come?

I kept the article all year round and kept looking at it. When I finally got to California I went straight to the salon and asked about the Farrah and then spent the rest of the 70s in my bathroom blow drying my hair.

Tthirty years later Believe me, I was a fully developed woman. Any further evolution and I would have been dead. The severe breast cancer I was diagnosed with in 2003 had come back viciously. The second round of chemo was successful, but I was still weak and didn’t have a lot of hair to blow dry. One day I was hooked up to an IV in a medical building in Santa Monica and was looking out the window with a chemo view when suddenly the largest paparazzi pack I had ever seen appeared across the street at Saint John’s Hospital in front of the front doors.

Who was in there? we all wondered, and then a nurse looked it up: Farrah Fawcett had died that night.

By the time you get chemotherapy, you’re already in a shitty mood. If you look at a lot of people who have gathered because another person’s chemotherapy failed, it doesn’t do anything for the setting.

The fact that that person was Farrah Fawcett made it worse. She was an icon of a certain version of 1970s beauty – young, thin, clean, “nice”. And then she was diagnosed with a rare and stigmatized disease, anal cancer, which has been linked to unprotected anal sex. Her doctor said she hated the type of cancer she had, hated the word. She underwent painful, experimental treatments, but they could not save her. Whoever Farrah Fawcett was on this earth, whatever she was to me, was gone.

W.when i was young, I was a huge consumer of celebrity news. Movie stars were glamorous but remote; I prefer the TV stars who were in my family room every week. As it turned out, they led real lives, living in ranch houses in places like Sherman Oaks and Encino.

As I got older, I lost everything – I don’t know any bachelorette influencers, and I don’t know the front page people. But celebrities with cancer are an exception. I feel an immediate loyalty to them; I’m wild on their side. Obviously, I have a strong propensity for parasocial relationships – feeling like I’m not just a fan of a famous person, but somehow their friend. Cancer is in full swing. I imagine that, in all their glory and richness, they are going through the same horrific treatments as I am, and I feel close to them.

However, the parasocial cancer relationship cuts both ways. Which brings me – and I’m by no means proud of that – to the Sheryl Crow situation.

When I was in the middle of my first chemotherapy, a period of vomiting and dark thoughts, I read in a magazine that Sheryl Crow had also been diagnosed with breast cancer. I learned that, like me, she almost missed her mammogram appointment and, like me, she was scared. I had very aggressive stage 3 cancer and when it came back a few years later it was stage 4: the worst. I wanted to know her staging so I could see if she had a hand as bad as mine. And that’s when I found out there was such a thing as … Stage 0 breast cancer.

Level 0? What kind of bullshit was that, Celebrity Cancer? What was the difference between stage 0 cancer and no cancer at all? (I looked up the damn thing and found that it was some kind of non-invasive precancerous condition that can usually be easily fixed with surgery.) Everyone is entitled to their own experience, but endlessly with the press about their level 0 terror to talk?

I developed a wild, irrational hatred of Sheryl Crow. As much as I loved Farrah Fawcett, I hated Sheryl Crow so much.

A few years later, I found out what a complete monster I am. Sheryl Crow had a brain tumor. She found out because she had symptoms like memory loss and had gone to an MRI. Her fans were heartbroken, and I was the little devil who simmered over her Stage 0 breast cancer.

Then Sheryl Crow had to give an interview in which she stated that her fans shouldn’t have to worry. It was a benign brain tumor and almost certainly would never need an operation. She said it could have been caused by her cell phone, which also brings the red fog with it. IM working on it. (Don’t take me now, Lord, with my unclean heart.)

Öfor all celebrity Cancer patients who moved me – either to virtue or to sin – none of them struck me as deeply as Norm Macdonald, who died of leukemia in September. He was exactly my generation – he was 61 and I’m almost 60 – and his comedy was the definition of what I found hilarious. He was an ironic, an amazingly quick joke, someone who could be bulletproof and strangely vulnerable at the same time.

He lived with the disease for nine years and told almost no one about it. He was desperately looking for religious beliefs, which he eventually found, although he never ceased to be afraid of what was to come. His work consists of hundreds of talk show appearances, and I wondered if he ended up feeling like they led to something bigger, or if they were short-lived – sliding off TV on YouTube and then disappearing. He often spoke of his fear of death. “Does norm do a little?” People would ask. He didn’t do a thing. He was dying.

I listened to him for many hours of podcast interviews and wish I had known him; I felt like I could have helped him somehow, which is the narcissistic premise of all parasocial relationships. I couldn’t have helped him. He lived and died the way he wanted to. A week before his death, he sent his best friend, comic book artist Bob Saget, a three-word text: “I love you.” They were the same words that surprised him when he made his last appearance on Letterman a few years ago. He expected him to laugh, and he played a set that became legendary. But when it was time to say goodbye to his mentor – the very first person to see him on late night television – he was overwhelmed. “I love you,” he said. In his senior year, he has posted Instagram videos of his mother hanging around his apartment and telling terrible jokes. Once he said the only thing he could never throw away was the gifts his son had given him.

All of this isn’t really about celebrities, of course; it’s about me. I can see aspects of my own experience in these famous patients – my fear and pain and my intense need to touch the people I love. But because celebrities exist behind the safety glass of fame, I can follow their ups and downs without feeling much cold to death.

I sincerely felt sorry for Farrah Fawcett, but when I sat in this chair, surprised by the news of her death, I mourned my own youth. Decades ago, when my whole life was still ahead of me and I didn’t know what kind of woman I was going to become, it seemed like I had to cut my hair like hers and maybe everything else would follow.

And I was sad about Norm Macdonald for his own sake, but also because he reminded me that I’m old enough now to see my own generation fade away. It will be another decade before the process really accelerates. But Macdonald was part of the landscape. How could I get old if the funniest person on the talk shows – the shows that are otherwise filled with young, boring starlets – was my age? Six decades: how much life is that? Is that enough life

We only know one thing about death: it comes to all of us, the famous and the obscure, and after that we fade from memory pretty quickly. “Here lies one whose name was written in the water,” says Keats’ tombstone. Not long after Farrah Fawcett’s death was announced, the paparazzi hopped on their motorcycles and illegally parked cars and sped away. Michael Jackson had died in Westwood, and Farrah Fawcett was almost instantly forgotten.

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