Actress Lynn Redgrave describes the diagnosis—and the artistic endeavor—that revealed her own strength and shed light on the treasures in her life.
by Diana Price
Actress Lynn Redgrave describes the diagnosis—and the artistic endeavor—that revealed her own strength and shed light on the treasures in her life. Though not the only hard-won lesson learned, it is perhaps the most profound to come from almost a year of treatment for breast cancer that the acclaimed actress endured after her diagnosis in December 2002.
A large lump in her right breast kept her from sleeping comfortably and sent Lynn to the doctor just after she had returned from filming a movie in Australia. The diagnosis, which confirmed a tumor measuring a little less than 2.5 inches and included lymph node involvement that would require a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation, was a complete shock. Lynn remembers thinking, How could this have gotten there without my noticing it? Especially, she says, considering that she had been daily lacing herself into period corsets for the role she had just finished. And yet two red flags arose in Lynn’s memory, nagging her conscience after her diagnosis and prompting her since that time to pass the information on to other women so that they might be more aware of early signs and preventive measures.
“What I do remember—and I had never taken this in as something to look for—was looking in the mirror in my bathroom in Australia and thinking my right breast had a different look to it. It had a different shape. And I thought, Isn’t aging an interesting thing; I don’t remember them being so different. At the time work and life and the innocence of good health conspired to shield her from the significance of the change. It was also her history of good health—and clear mammograms—that kept her from a regular screening appointment before she left for Australia.
Always regular about her screening visits, Lynn had seen her gynecologist for her annual visit and had been examined, but the imaging center had been unable to schedule her for a mammogram. The receptionist told Lynn that given her healthy family history and her previous clear mammograms, she was not a priority in the center’s busy schedule and shouldn’t worry about the delayed appointment. Whether the tumor would have been detectable at that point is debatable, but Lynn continues to pass the story along as a cautionary tale, determined to encourage women to become their own advocates. You are always a priority when your health is on the line: be aware; be persistent; be proactive.
Once the diagnosis was confirmed, Lynn says, she waited to tell her children. Her son, Ben, and daughter-in-law, Niva, were expecting their second child, and she didn’t want her news to collide with their joyful time. She knew that her older daughter, Kelly, who lives in England, would visit for Christmas, and that would be the time to share the news with her. So her younger daughter, Annabel, heard the news first. And it was during the phone call in which Lynn delivered the news that she also asked Annabel—a photographer and at the time a senior at Parsons School of Design—to document her cancer journey. The result of their collaboration, in which Lynn’s journal entries accompany Annabel’s photographs of her mother’s treatment and recovery, is Journal: A Mother and Daughter’s Recovery from Breast Cancer, published by Umbrage Editions in 2004.
But the images—which follow Lynn through chemotherapy treatments and hair loss, which show her baring her breasts and then her mastectomy scar, which capture her in moments of despair and through to the peace she finds—were not meant for the public eye. “We never intended to share this,” she says. Lynn’s initial intention was to allow the camera lens to put some distance between Annabel and the trauma of her mother’s treatment. “I thought, If she looks down a lens—which is her artistry—I’ll become this thing to do with her art, and she’ll be very objective, and I’ll be the subject, and it will help her look at me and be able to handle this because somehow she’ll be involved in a different way,” says Lynn.
In the foreword to Journal, Annabel explains that she too initially considered the project only therapeutic: “If we turned the disease into a project, it would become less scary. We could objectify it and observe it. And if we could anticipate the completion of the project, we could anticipate the end of the disease.”
But what began as a welcome distraction and grew from protective instinct became a consuming project for both mother and daughter. Soon the life of the project changed focus. “My initial thing was protective,” says Lynn. “What changed was that I came to depend on it.” Their time together gave Lynn something to plan for, other than the reality of the treatment itself. “For me it became about going to the hospital to meet my daughter, who was going to do these photographs,” she says. “And it was all part of our project, which took away from the fact that they were going to fill me with poison.”
Reviewing the photos that Annabel took also gave Lynn a refreshing perspective on her disease and her physical appearance, “particularly about losing my hair,” she says. “Most women I know who have gone through this agree that this is the worst part. I thought I would be just fine. I thought, I’m an actress. I can handle it. And I couldn’t. I could never reconcile myself to the face in the mirror. I had to, but I didn’t like it. I almost had to screw up my face each time to look in the mirror to brush my teeth. But looking at the photographs, I’d say, Oh, that’s really interesting.” The translation of her experience through the camera lens allowed Lynn to remove herself from the day-to-day intensity of the situation and see her own strength reflected back in the photos.
With Lynn’s blessing, Annabel began taking the photos into her classes at Parsons to get critiques, which were very positive. With little time left outside of the time she was spending with her mom and her regular coursework, Annabel asked Lynn if she could use the photos as the subject for her final show. “For about 10 seconds I thought, Oh, I’ll be up on the wall in the gallery, and it will be me, and people will know it’s me, and I was afraid,” Lynn says. “But then I thought, That’s like censorship, and I’m against that. Nobody should censor art, and I’m not going to censor my own daughter’s art.” So Lynn said yes and gave Annabel the freedom to use any photos she chose to in the final exhibit. It was Annabel who thought of using excerpts from Lynn’s journal to accompany the photos in place of captions, and she placed a bound book on a podium next to the photos at the opening.
“I felt so proud of her,” Lynn says of the opening night. “And I kind of felt proud of myself too.” It was from that exhibit that a New York Times Magazine spread of the photos and excerpts appeared and, later, the book deal emerged. Lynn and Annabel’s journey together is an inspiring story of a completely private collaboration between mother and daughter becoming a public celebration and commemoration of an extraordinary year of healing and strength.
It is the knowledge of her own strength—so apparent in the images in Journal, along with the vulnerability and the despair and the joy—that Lynn was gifted on her journey. “I always knew I was sort of a resilient person,” she says. “I just was. I mean, when something terrible happens, I’m an absolute basket case; but then I just rally and bounce back. Those are the genes of my family; we react fantastically emotionally, and then we get on with it.” But to be really tested, she says, and to know that she had prevailed, was transformative. “I didn’t believe I had strength, and now I do believe it.”
Fans of Lynn’s work as an actress probably wouldn’t doubt the strength that she was surprised to find in herself. She has been exhibiting incredibly powerful, rich, and diverse work on both stage and screen for years—most recently in the theatre productions of her solo performance of her own Nightingale and on-screen in the Golden Globe–nominated Gods and Monsters, as well as in the recent Shine, Kinsey, and The White Countess. Born to a family of actors, including parents Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, sister Vanessa, brother Corin, and nieces Natasha Richardson, Joely Richardson, and Jemma Redgrave, Lynn has garnered critical and popular acclaim throughout
It was her passion for her work, and her commitment to continue stepping out on-stage, that became a source of inspiration for Lynn throughout her treatment. Before her diagnosis she had committed to the role of Mrs. Fozzard in the off-Broadway play Talking Heads, and throughout her treatment she never missed a performance. A welcome distraction and a source of energy, “doctor theatre” kept Lynn focused on life beyond cancer. And it was in her professional role too that she first realized that her story could have an impact and might be helpful to other women.
Around the time that she decided to share her story on Larry King Live—a decision she made when it became clear that other media outlets were going to air the story—she began receiving inspiring messages from fellow survivors via her Web site. The healing power of sharing her story became clear when she realized that other women found comfort in hearing about her experience and in sharing their own. “I thought, My God, coming out is a great thing,” Lynn says, “because maybe there’s some sort of fate that picks people like us because we have a forum and we can talk and support other people who don’t.”
Lynn’s own support system was bolstered so many times, she says, by the love of her family. Already very close, Lynn still marvels at the incredibly intimate relationship that she and Annabel forged through the process of documenting the journey. She also took joy in time spent with her son and his family—detailing in her journal entries the funny things her grandchildren would do and say—always conscious of wanting more time. Simple, common interactions with everyone she loved took on an extraordinary grace after her diagnosis, Lynn says, and she became especially sensitive to the gift of time.
In what would become a bittersweet twist of fate, Lynn’s sister, Vanessa, was working in New York during much of Lynn’s treatment (appearing on Broadway in Long Day’s Journey Into Night), and she brought their 92-year-old mother with her. As it happened, their mother passed away during Lynn’s treatment, while
Vanessa was still in New York. As difficult as it was to lose her, Lynn says, her mother died peacefully and in the presence of her loved ones, and it was a beautiful time in a way: “It was like something else wonderfully graceful about life happened. How wonderful in that year that I happened to have cancer, Vanessa came to New York, and we were able to be together. My mother was able to have her end surrounded by all of us.” It was another of life’s moments that came into focus, reminding Lynn of the value of love, the time that is precious, and the power of the relationships that guide one through life. Lessons, Lynn says, that remain with her and her siblings today.
“Vanessa and I and Corin are all older people now, and we treasure each other and being with each other and seeing each other in a way we didn’t when we were younger. We always thought, We’re brothers and sisters; we grew up together; we can do that later—but now it is later, so we all take the time to be on the phone if we can’t be together physically, and we get so much support from each other.”
Lynn also increasingly found support in spiritual community. “I had this sort of vague spirituality,” she says of her life before her diagnosis. As an actor, she embraced the ritualistic lighting of a candle in St. Patrick’s Cathedral before opening night and had always found peace in communal church services. But after her diagnosis, her spiritual practice became more profound as she found herself craving both the peace and the community that it engendered. “It has made a big difference to me. I’ve really kind of entered into it. I love to go to a service. I end feeling peaceful.” She is empowered, she says, by the power that a communal body can have through prayer. “It introduced me to a whole other life; it’s very grounding.”
She has also found that she is especially aware of the comfort of a spiritual community as she travels to perform. “Because of having had cancer, being away in a strange place sometimes I’m a little scared. I know where I am, I know where my feet are on the ground when I’m in New York, when I’m in my home in Connecticut, when I’m with my family and friends; but move me out of any of those situations, and I feel a little tiny tremble of insecurity. What grounds me then is saying, Yes, but there is a family out there, and I can go on Sunday to a service before a matinée, and now I’m part of something and I’m grounded.”
Being grounded, being certain of who she is and what she wants—these are the lessons of Lynn’s journey. “Quite honestly, in many ways it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. It changed my life in all positive ways.” She is clear, she says, that this is the time, this is the place to be in the moment, to treasure the people she loves, to do what she loves, and she’s moving forward on all fronts. “With my own work, I’m busy, busy, busy. But I’m also down in my garden in Connecticut. I take the time. I don’t miss the celebrations. I fly where I need to be, lest it be the last.” And if there has to be a downside, she relents, it’s bittersweet: “The only nonpositive thing about it is the threat that hangs over you. I’m greedy; I would like lots more time. I have lots of things I want to do.”