Diahann Carroll: Sending an Urgent Message
By Idelle Davidson
It’s almost sunset at the luxurious L’Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills. As Diahann Carroll steps through the lobby, guests’ conversations cease and their necks crane. Diahann is dressed simply in slacks and a jacket, but at age 64 she still moves with a model’s grace. The entertainer is tall, with beautiful skin and large expressive eyes.
As she makes herself comfortable on a low couch across from the glow of the fireplace, two other Hollywood stars wander into the hotel, most certainly making the day of those slack-jawed guests not accustomed to so many celebrity sightings. First, recording star Dionne Warwick rushes over to Diahann and they embrace. After she leaves, actor Burt Reynolds drops by, offering more affectionate hugs and kisses. Once her friends have gone, Diahann proclaims laughing, “I really didn’t plan this, I swear!”
Yet clearly, Diahann is respected by her many colleagues. And why not? This consummate actress and singer has tackled it all. She can belt out Richard Rodgers show tunes or coo Cole Porter torch songs like no one else. She is so versatile, her career has ranged from Las Vegas headliner to guest singer with the Boston Pops to starring roles in television, film, and on the Broadway stage.
Diahann made television history in 1968 as the first black actress to star in her own series, Julia, for NBC. Years later she played the elegant Dominique Devereaux on the nighttime soap, Dynasty. She took on the role of Norma Desmond (“And now, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”) in the Toronto premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Sunset Boulevard, and portrayed Sadie Delany of the Delany Sisters in the CBS television movie, Having Our Say. She costarred with Samuel L. Jackson in the film, Eve’s Bayou. Diahann is a Tony award winner and has been nominated for Grammy, Emmy, and Best Actress Oscar Awards. She’s even an accomplished businesswoman with her own signature line of eyewear, belts, handbags, and wigs.
Diahann tries to approach each new career and personal experience head on. “That’s pretty much the way I live my life,” she says.
Yet in April 1998, this pro admits that she found herself unprepared for one of her most difficult challenges. During a routine medical exam, Diahann’s doctor felt a small mass in her left breast.
After a quickly scheduled mammogram and a biopsy, her doctor called with the dreaded word: cancer. “I wanted it to be a lie,” says Diahann. “I sat down and stared out the window and imagined that if I sat very still, all of this would just go away. But of course that didn’t happen.”
Diahann was more than stunned; she was baffled. She had exercised and eaten healthfully, and there was no history of breast cancer in her family. Could it have been the stress of her career? Did it have anything to do with the hormone replacement therapies she had tried years ago? “You can’t tell,” says Diahann, shaking her head. “We just don’t have enough information.”
The good news was they caught the cancer early. The mass was less than a centimeter. Diahann says she has always been meticulous about keeping her appointments for physicals and mammograms. “I know there are large numbers of women in the black community who are neglectful about mammograms,” she says. “But the yearly exam saved my life.”
Her oncologist, Kenneth Tokita, MD, recommended a lumpectomy and a daily regimen of radiation treatment for about 2 months. She was able to forego chemotherapy.
Divorced from her fourth husband, singer Vic Damone, Diahann relied on her adult daughter, her 90- year-old mother, and actress friends such as Joan Collins of Dynasty and the late Mary Frann of Newhart, for support.
“I knew emotionally it was going to be a tremendous strain,” she says. So she tried to stay positive and upbeat, scheduling a few lunches with friends after her treatments.
Even the location of her treatments was important to her; Diabann didn’t want to travel too far from her Beverly Hills home. “I decided on a small hospital in Santa Monica because I liked the idea of driving toward the beach.”
Yet the radiation took its toll on her immune system. Diahann developed the varicella zoster virus (related to chicken pox), which prolonged the sessions. Her career was on hold for almost 3 months.
Although she has a clean bill of health today, Diahann still lives with some fear. “There is a place in the hack of my brain that will never believe I am cancer free,” she says, her voice dropping. “Once you know you’re vulnerable, you believe it can happen again.”
At first Diahann hoped to keep the news of her cancer private. But then she realized she could use her celebrity to help educate women—especially other black women—about the importance of annual physicals. “It was the right decision, definitely,” says Diahann.
And so, she became a national spokeswoman for Lifetime Television’s breast cancer awareness campaign. Diahann’s public service announcements, which aired during October 1998, implored African- American women to schedule mammograms and breast exams annually. In 1999 she was an on-air spokeswoman for Rite Aid’s program to provide free mammograms to women in honor of Mother’s Day.
“I’d like to believe I’ve increased awareness in all communities,” says Diahann, “but I certainly am aware of the numbers of black women who don’t get mammograms and who are finding themselves with cancer. I hope that my becoming a spokesperson has encouraged a new thought process.”
Between her professional obligations, Diahann speaks to groups of women in communities across the country about breast cancer awareness and prevention. She remembers one particular early morning when her appeals paid off.
Diahann was in North Carolina to film the TV movie, Having Our Say. Rushing to leave her hotel room to get to the set, two women stopped her outside her door. One was the hotel housekeeper, waiting in the hallway to thank Diahann. “She had heard me on the radio where I literally begged all women, particularly blacks, Asians, and Hispanics, to have a mammogram,” she says.
Because of the entertainer’s on-air encouragement, the housekeeper and her friend had gone for the test, even though the machine frightened them. Doctors discovered that one of them had breast cancer. “It was found very early and they were very grateful,” recalls Diahann. “That made me feel fantastic.”
Sometimes, though, when the actress speaks to groups of women, she finds their stories almost overwhelming. At one event, after Diahann had told of her experience, answered questions, and then was enjoying tea and cookies with the group, a distraught young woman came up to her to talk.
“It was obvious that she was having enormous difficult” Diahann recalls. “The other women backed away so she could say what she needed to say.” It turns out that at the age of 28, this young woman was about to check into the hospital for a double mastectomy. “She wanted me to cheer her up,” says Diahann. “She wanted what everyone wants when they’ve been overwhelmed by such a situation. They want comfort, they want bonding, they want to laugh. They just have to talk about it.”
Diahann didn’t ask the young woman if she had been having regular breast exams, feeling that the woman didn’t need that additional stress. But their interaction only strengthened Diahann’s belief that women should schedule regular mammograms. (Women younger than 40 who are at high risk for breast cancer because of a family history, for instance, should talk to their doctors about starting the tests early.)
There is much for which Diahann says she’s thankful. “I think cancer has helped make me more aware of my blessings,” she says. “I think I’m handling the important ingredients of my life—my family and my friends—in a much more dedicated and yet concerned way.”
Even the little things have a new sweetness to her. “It can be as simple as the sound of the laughter of someone you love. All of a sudden you hear it differently. I’m willing to linger longer there.”
Then there are the experiences that Diahann no longer wants to put off for the sake of her career. For years she has wanted to travel to places in the world that are spiritually important to her. Now she’s planning to do that. “I’d start with some of the islands where Jesus was, where he spoke,” she says.
And her advice to others who may be dealing with cancer? “I just believe that whatever hand is dealt to each of us, we have to approach it with as much courage and dignity as we possibly can.”
InTouch November 2000