Sunday, March 22, 2009
Famous Survivors.... Part One in Series: Ingrid Bergman
Ingrid Bergman, the Swedish beauty and impeccable actress who will always be remembered as Ilsa, Humphrey Bogart’s long lost lover in Casablanca, found a lump in her breast in 1973. She was living in London and appearing in the play, “The Constant Wife.” She was 58 years old. She didn’t go to the doctor right away because of the play. She said to her husband, “I’m in the play, and we’ve got a long run ahead. I can’t do anything for the moment.”
Several months went by, she not only continued with “The Constant Wife” but she also began filming Murder on the Orient Express. The play closed in 1974 and the lump was larger. She finally went to the London Clinic where she was told she had breast cancer. Back then, a woman went in for a biopsy and while still under anesthesia, the doctors tested the tumor. If it was found to be cancerous, an immediate radical mastectomy was performed. The patient does not know she has cancer until she wakes up and discovers her breast was removed. A radical mastectomy removed the breast, the lymph nodes, part of the chest wall and the pectoral muscle. It is a huge surgery and leaves the woman with a chest concavity and some level of disability in the arm of the affected side.
In her autobiography, she remembers how the doctor told her. She said, “The doctor came and I could read his face like an open book. I felt sorry for him because it must be an awful job to go around telling women they are mutilated.”
Like all breast cancer patients, she did her arm exercises. She recounts, “My arm felt useless and I could hardly lift it. But I did exercises and worked up the muscles in my hand and arm, and slowly I improved. I made pencil marks on my wardrobe door to see how high I could raise my arm.”
While filming Autumn Sonata in 1977 she found that her cancer had spread. She had another tumor removed from under her right arm followed by another radical mastectomy on the right breast after she found a large lump there. That surgery caused her to develop a severe form of lymphedema in her right arm.
As a last resort, she underwent chemotherapy. But this was only done after her cancer had spread. There were no drugs to control nausea then and it was very grueling. She never did chemotherapy in the early days of her diagnosis, only radiation, and unfortunately she was too late. It couldn’t help her at the point she was in her disease.
Ingrid Bergman died at the age of 67 on her birthday, on August 29, 1982
If Miss Bergman had been diagnosed today, she would have received a modified radical mastectomy that would not have left her debilitated. Chemotherapy would most likely have been started immediately. If her cancer was sensitive to hormones she would have been on aromatase inhibitors and would have lived a longer life with a better quality of life. Even her lymphedema would have been controlled better. Unfortunately, these things were not available to breast cancer patients in the 1970s, where even speaking of your cancer was not ever done in public.
Ingrid Bergman continued to act until her last days. She lived her life to the fullest and was ever-radiant, forever Ilsa. During her last acting role as Golda Meir, in her last days, she said,
“I would like to live my life as fully as I can until the last possible moment . At some point, you have to make peace with adverse circumstances … you have to bend. Bending is part of life.”