The Cancer Celebrities
I was 16, living for a year with my family in Ireland, and I was viciously homesick. I was an American teenager, and I wanted Coca-Cola with cracked ice, Lip Smackers, Sticky Fingers jeans. Ireland in the 1970s was still under the provisional rule of the Irish Taliban—even condoms were illegal, not that I needed any—and there was one television channel. It broadcast only in the evenings, beginning with a call to prayer and ending with a reckless bit of ecumenism: For 15 minutes, a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister debated some issue of the day (guess who won?). Then there would be “The Soldier’s Song,” a picture of the Tricolour rippling in sunlight, and finally—nothing.
Then one day the international edition of Time magazine arrived. The photograph on the cover didn’t have anything to do with inflation or China. It was of three beautiful women—or, more accurately, two beautiful women and one whose beauty was so great, it was almost incomprehensible: Farrah Fawcett.
What was this?
Charlie’s Angels. Apparently it was the biggest thing happening in America, and the good men of Time had decided to present the new show as laughably mediocre, the women as smokeshows, and the overall production as an important statement on “the evolution of women.” Huh. Women were evolving! Fawcett may have been a bit dim—the other Angels were forever having to explain things to her—but she was a star, important enough to be on the cover of Time, and she was said to have a clause in her contract that allowed her to “leave the set to rush home in time to make supper for her husband.” Probably fondue! Followed by Kahlúa coffee and sexual intercourse.
And here I was, stuck in a religious state in the North Atlantic and never been kissed, although I’d caught scabies off a dirty roller towel at school. Was that as close as I was going to get?
I kept the article all year, looking at it again and again. When I finally, finally got home to California, I went straight to the salon and asked for the Farrah, and then I spent the rest of the 1970s in my bathroom, blow-drying my hair.
Thirty years later I was, believe me, a fully evolved woman. Any more evolution and I’d have been dead. The serious breast cancer that I’d been diagnosed with in 2003 had come back, viciously. The second round of chemo had been successful, but I was still weak from it, and I didn’t have much hair to blow-dry. One day, I was hooked up to an IV in a Santa Monica medical building, looking out the windows in a chemo gaze, when across the street at Saint John’s hospital, the biggest mob of paparazzi I’d ever seen suddenly arrived and stood jostling outside the front doors.
Who was in there? we all wondered, and then a nurse looked it up: Farrah Fawcett had died in the night.
When you’re getting chemotherapy, you’re already in a crap mood. When you’re looking at a mob of people assembled because another person’s chemo has failed, it does nothing for the attitude.
The fact of that person being Farrah Fawcett made it that much grimmer. She’d been an icon of a particular version of ’70s beauty—young, thin, clean, “nice.” And then she was diagnosed with a rare and stigmatized disease, anal cancer, which is associated with unprotected anal sex. Her doctor said she hated the type of cancer she had, hated the word. She underwent painful, experimental treatments, but they couldn’t save her. Whoever Farrah Fawcett was on this Earth, whatever she had once been to me, was gone.
When I was young, I was a huge consumer of celebrity news. Movie stars were glamorous but remote; I preferred the television stars who were in my family room every week. They had real lives, it turned out, and lived in ranch houses in places like Sherman Oaks and Encino.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve fallen away from it all—I don’t know an influencer from a bachelorette, and the people on magazine covers are strangers to me. But one exception is celebrities with cancer. I feel an immediate fealty to them; I’m wildly on their side. Obviously, I have a pronounced tendency toward the parasocial relationship—the sense that I’m not just a fan of a famous person, but somehow their friend. With cancer, it goes into overdrive. I imagine that in all of their splendor and wealth, they’re going through the same horrible treatments that I am, and I feel close to them.
The parasocial cancer relationship cuts both ways, however. Which brings me—and I am by no means proud of this—to the Sheryl Crow situation.
When I was in the middle of my first round of 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’d almost blown off her mammogram appointment and, like me, she was terrified. I had a very aggressive Stage 3 cancer, and when it returned a few years later, it was Stage 4: the worst. I wanted to know her staging, so I could see if she’d been dealt as bad a hand as I had. And that is when I learned that there is such a thing as … Stage 0 breast cancer.
Stage 0? What kind of bullshit, celebrity cancer was this? What was the difference between Stage 0 cancer and no cancer at all? (I looked the damn thing up and saw that it’s some kind of noninvasive precancer that’s typically easily resolved with surgery.) Everyone’s entitled to her own experience, but talking endlessly to the press about her terror of Stage 0?
I developed a wild, irrational hatred of Sheryl Crow. As much as I’d loved Farrah Fawcett—that’s how much I hated Sheryl Crow.
Some years later, I found out what a complete monster I am. Sheryl Crow had a brain tumor. She found out because she’d been having symptoms such as memory loss and had gone in for an MRI. Her fans were heartbroken, and I was the little devil who had seethed about her Stage 0 breast cancer.
Then Sheryl Crow had to give an interview explaining that her fans didn’t need to worry. It was a benign brain tumor, and would almost certainly never need to be operated on. She said it might have been caused by her cell phone, which also brings on the red mist. I’m working on it. (Don’t take me now, Lord, with my impure heart.)
Of all the celebrity cancer patients who have moved me—toward either virtue or sin—none has affected 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 ironist, an amazingly fast wit, 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 desperate for religious faith, which he eventually found, though he never stopped being frightened of what was coming. His body of work consists of hundreds of talk-show appearances, and I wondered if he felt, in the end, that they added up to something bigger, or if they were ephemeral—slipping off TV to YouTube and then fading away. He would often speak of his terror of death. “Is Norm doing a bit?” people would wonder. He wasn’t doing a bit. He was dying.
I listened to many hours of podcast interviews with him, and I wished I’d known him; I felt like I could have helped him in some way, 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, the comic Bob Saget, a three-word text: “I love you.” They were the same words he had choked out, surprising himself, when he made his final appearance on Letterman some years earlier. He had expected to go out on a laugh, and he performed a set that became legendary. But when it was time to say goodbye to his mentor—the very first person who’d had him on late-night television—he was overcome. “I love you,” he said. In his last year, he posted Instagram videos of his mom hanging out in his apartment, telling terrible jokes. Once, he said the only things he could never throw out were the gifts his son gave him.
All of this isn’t really about celebrities, of course; it’s about me. I can see in these famous patients aspects of my own experience—my fear and pain and fierce desire to grasp onto the people I love. But because celebrities exist behind the safety glass of fame, I can follow their ups and downs without feeling much mortal chill.
I was genuinely sorry for Farrah Fawcett, but when I sat in that chair, surprised by the news of her death, what I was mourning was my own youth. Decades ago, when all of life was before me, and I didn’t know what kind of woman I would become, it seemed like the thing to do was 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 start to disappear. It will take another decade for the process to really speed up. But Macdonald was part of the landscape. How could I be getting old if the funniest person on the talk shows—the shows that are otherwise filled with young, tedious starlets—was my age? Six decades: How much life is that? Is that enough life?
There’s only one thing we know about death: It comes for all of us, the famous and the obscure, and after it does, we pretty quickly disappear from memory. “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water,” it says on Keats’s gravestone. Not long after Farrah Fawcett’s death was announced, the paparazzi jumped on their motorcycles and illegally parked cars and roared off. Michael Jackson had died in Westwood, and almost immediately, Farrah Fawcett was forgotten.