Marsha Hunt - Breast Cancer

Marsha Hunt - Breast Cancer

 

Marsha Hunt

Marsha Hunt - Solo Through Breast Cancer

Marsha hunt developed breast cancer and was treated with surgery in Ireland. She developed MRSA. She then had chemotherapy and decided to cut the long locks that she was famed for, rather than watch them fall out. Marsha had no interest in complementary and orthodox medicine - when it came to cancer, she was orthodox all the way. Here is the icon interview with her.

’Young, Gifted and Black’ - the sixties soul song title understates, if anything, what Marsha Hunt meant to that swinging decade when she and her huge halo of hair hit London, starred in the radical rock musical Hair and bore Mick Jagger his first child - a daughter, Karis.

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Photographed nude by Lord Lichfield, Marsha became an icon of beauty and boldness. She has since remade her name as a writer and novelist and made homes in Kent, France and Ireland where she now lives. Always health and body conscious, Marsha, discovered she had breast cancer last November.

icon’s Living Proofs usually feature survivors of some years, but this exclusive first interview about her journey took place as Marsha was still part-way through radiotherapy. It reflects her singular views on, and feisty approach to cancer, more of which you can catch in an ITV documentary Real Life: Beating Breast Cancer on September 26, 2005 and in her book UNDEFEATED (Mainstream, October 2005).

"I’d been working on a biography about Jimi Hendrix when I developed tenderness in my right breast. There was a lump, but I insisted on not stopping my work. I knew that I was putting my health in danger, but I decided that the book was more important. I still believe that now. It felt like my life’s work as I’d been working on it for four years. I wanted to have something tangible to come back to, not just the kernel of an idea which could easily be dissipated as treatment took over. I’m not 12; I am 59 and I’ve had a fabulous life. Although I feel a youth about me, chronologically I am old, and proud to be that. I believe that we are soldiers and we come here to do good things which can be more important than just hanging in there to live until you are 80.

Open quotesI wanted to have something tangible to come back toClose quotes

 

Between June and November, when I sought treatment, the lump became more swollen and irritated. The surgeon I eventually saw at the hospital, literally touched my breast and said ’I think this is cancer.’ Within two and a half hours I had been for a mammogram, an ultra sound and a biopsy. So although the jury was still out until he saw me again three days later, cancer seemed pretty likely. My daughter Karis was at home in LA, six weeks from having a baby, so she felt troubled that she couldn’t come and take care of me. My issue was ’Guess what! I am in Ireland with a support system to die for. You hang where you are. I’m going to be fine’.

 

Crucial to my attitude was that I had been carer to my former partner Alan through his colorectal cancer. So the process wasn’t alien to me and I wasn’t scared. We’d met 10 years ago, when he was making a documentary about me and I moved to Ireland to be with him. Our lives were happy, but getting involved with somebody 17 years younger than yourself you assume that it’ll be you whose health suffers first. Instead, five years ago, aged 37, Alan got a major, serious cancer. He was so ill that I became very involved throughout. We really kicked ass with him and he didn’t just come through: he sailed.

Through that experience I saw that crisis is also opportunity: sometimes these things happen in your life in a good way, because they force you to make changes. Alan is fine now, but thinking this was his wake-up call I felt he should afterwards go off and be with somebody his age, We parted, though we are still very good friends: he married and his baby is just a year old.

Open quotesIf it’s my time, it’s my timeClose quotes

 

Facing cancer, I’m also lucky in my philosophy which owes a lot to living in Ireland where they have very real views on life and death. Being able to say I have had a fabulous life affords one a lot less fear about death, especially as I have written books which I’d leave behind as well as children and grandchildren. So hey, my thought was, ’If it’s my time, it’s my time.’ Living alone as I have been, you have nobody sitting waiting for breakfast giving you the impression you have to be alive for them.

 

There’s a lot to be said for that. Speaking as his carer, I am sure that Alan was, at the time, advantaged because he had me fighting his corner. I don’t say this vainly, I say it because I know it is true. But I also know, having done it my way, that there are huge advantages to doing cancer alone.

I think it’s primary to my story that I have not had a partner; I have not had any advocate or family with me.

I could not have wanted for better friends who, in true Irish fashion, exhausted me, if anything, with their coming and coming to visit, bearing flowers, grapes and gifts.

U2 manager, Paul McGuinness let me stay in his house during my treatment and his wife, one of my best friends, arrived the morning of my mastectomy and did not leave until I woke.

But ultimately, I have not had the pressure of someone else’s angst relating to my illness and that has been beneficial. I did not have somebody making this a tragedy I did not feel it was.

Marsha Hunt

I could put my skates on and do whatever was necessary at the very moment it seemed so, without asking anyone ’Are you ready to go? Will your job allow you time today?’

Thirdly I never had to catch anyone looking at me with sorrow.

As for my mastectomy - it was easy peasy. Having total trust in my 39 year old surgeon, I never felt adrift with my disease. My self never stopped operating.

Almost immediately I came out of surgery I was walking round feeling great. Apart from the cumbersomeness of two drains, there was no problem.

I had no trouble with my six months chemo or my 25 days of radiotherapy, though the steroids I had along with chemo drugs Adriamycin and taxol made me gain a lot of weight.

But I really was neither sick nor tired during treatment: I totally had a life. Except that, come day nine or 10 post surgery, when I was supposed to be discharged, I got really sick. I didn’t discover until I moved to a different hospital - Black Rock - that my wound had been infected with MRSA. Some people fight this staphylococcus aureus for months so I was really lucky to get rid of it in three weeks.

But they fill you up with designer antibiotics to fight this systemic infection. I was so weak I couldn’t even drink water. I was a mess for about a month and even though I didn’t feel sick psychologically, when I went home for Christmas, I would hear my footsteps drag across the floor and think, ’Listen to the state of you!’

Open quotesIt’s very personal and stems largely from my three professionsClose quotes

 

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend my way of doing cancer to other women. It’s very personal and stems largely from my three professions - as singer, actress and writer.

 

They are all very internal, so I feel I know myself in an unusual way and know my body well enough to respond to what its needs were under the circumstances of disease.

Before breast cancer, I was never into traditional medicine. I’ve always been into homeopathy and naturopathy - if there was some way not to take a pill, I would go that route.

But with the cancer I decided immediately to go the conventional route that kept Alan alive and was therefore proven to me be the safest.

I’ve gone the opposite of complementary: I was vegetarian before but I now eat a bit of meat. I’ve stopped exercising, feeling that one’s body is under a lot of pressure, so to go out walking to keep your figure - that’s nuts. I’m not sitting here eating chocolates, but I am being extremely, cautiously kind to my body and listening to myself. If I get up in the night and think I need a lamb chop, I’ll have one. I’ve stopped taking my daily kelp, vitamin C and magnesium, because I thought ’just eat well. Don’t put any more things in that body than all the stuff the medical profession is putting in.’ As for organic eating, I grew a vegetable garden in France and saw how properly organic produce behaved when grown from good seed. If you haven’t eaten a carrot 16 hours after pulling it from the ground, it droops, it flops and wants its mother.

So how can supermarket veg, however labelled, be properly organic when it will sit for a week, bright orange in the fridge, before it’s gone?

Open quotesSometimes you feel guilty when you refuse professional adviceClose quotes

 

Sometimes you feel guilty when you refuse professional advice, as I did when they suggested putting a portal in my arm to make delivery of the chemo easier. You wonder if you are putting yourself at risk or simply using your commonsense.

 

But after MRSA I figured I didn’t want something foreign in my body that made me more susceptible to infection. I also chose to use cocoa butter on my radiotherapy site instead of the cream they suggested.

I tried not to take the Pill, and I never took HRT though friends thought me crazy to go through the menopause without it.

So although I take Herceptin, which is the newly acclaimed, still quite experimental breast cancer drug, I wasn’t going to take Tamoxifen as suggested for five years after breast cancer.

I didn’t want any hormonal adjustment. As part of the TV documentary I met a specialist at the Charing Cross Hospital who felt that I definitely should have done the Tamoxifen. But you know what? It’s my life and I’ve made my choice. I’ll pay for it if it’s wrong, and if it’s right I won’t.

Marsha Hunt

At times during the past months, I’ve had to weigh up whether I’m being obstinate and ridiculous or whether I really understand my own body. I realised early on in my cancer journey that I seemed to have a totally different attitude from other people about cancer and dying, losing my hair and my breast.

Before I ever went into hospital anyone I talked to looked at me bewailing ’Oh my God, my God’ to which I replied, ’Hey, let’s not panic, I’m not dead yet and let me just get the surgery and do the best I can do. And if I’m going to lose my hair let’s figure out a nice way to do that. It’s only my hair - what’s the big deal?’

The deal was that they saw my persona in my hair and my sexuality in my hair and my breast.

But this is not the case. Some of the most beautiful people I know are 89, with spirit and experience that shines far more than surface beauty.

I feel partly responsible for the notion that one’s breasts are the essence of one’s sexuality, because in the sixties we were all throwing our clothes off. I was a promoter of the ’body liberated’ notion - that it’s your right to let it all hang out.

40 years on it seems that concept has escalated into something sick - it’s as if the medical profession has turned into a retail industry where tits are concerned. If you have a mastectomy they encourage reconstruction.

But you know what? My breasts are not my sexuality and never were. Yes, I took my clothes off and there was some element of allure in nudity. But that did not define me. I have no question that were I to engage in a proper relationship I would be no less the person I was before my breast was removed.

The day my doctor told me it was going, I said ’These breasts have seen some good years and now the one on the right is going to retire. She has served her time. The girl can go.’ Offered reconstruction I said ’Absolutely not!’ I had no problem with it then, I have no problem now and I swear to you I don’t think I’m being brave.

Marsha Hunt

That said, the thought that hit me hardest once I got my diagnosis was what my granddaughter was going to say when she saw me bald. Mazie is three and has always liked my really long hair. To stop it seeming a sad event, I organised a hair-cutting party at Karis’ house in LA, where all my friends braided my hair and everybody including Mazie and her little friends, got to cut a braid.

It was such fun and my head was then shaved while everyone watched. The whole event became a big celebration, with clapping and hooraying. I became bald in the presence of so many people exclaiming Oh, we love it! Doesn’t it look nice!’ that there was never a moment later, when I felt selfconscious about presenting myself to others. Mazie herself pronounced ’I think Grammy looks better bald.’

Coming out of hospital, I’d say to other women, look your very best every day. Not for other people, but for yourself. I see this as part of my therapy as I must be 25 lbs heavier than normal from the steroids.

I’ve bought new clothes and I have had to rethink my look and my poise to take account of the extra weight, one breast and no hair.

Thinking about the possible cause of my cancer, I do wonder if we all have the potential to have it. But I’ve heard so many people who do get it talk of some traumatic experience in the recent past that goes beyond just a little distress.

It seems to be trauma that’s a real silencer - something that internalises your grief and pain in a way that is intrinsically damaging and leaves you wide open to disease. Without detailing mine, I can definitely say that I had such a trauma about 18 months before cancer manifested.

Open quotesThe journey I’ve been through hasn’t made me feel a victimClose quotes

 

But the journey I’ve been through hasn’t made me feel a victim. It’s part of my life and if it’s the part that takes me out of here, then at least I’ve made my own choices along the way.

 

Cancer has brought shared healing to my family because it has bound us together as a unit: my sister and I who would speak on birthdays and holidays now speak twice a week. My brother now calls every week.

Cancer has been good to me because I have discovered things about myself and the kindness of others that I would not have missed."

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