Maura Tierney: “How I Survived Chemo”

Featured Article, Healthy Living
on July 11, 2012

Maura Tierney isn’t a nurse, but she played one, famously, in her turn as Nurse Abby Lockhart on ER from 1999-2009. She also found herself in the company of RNs more often than she cared to be after her breast cancer diagnosis the very year ER went off the air. Now, the three-year cancer “champion”—don’t call her a survivor—is on a nationwide campaign to set the record straight about chemotherapy. “I initially didn’t think I was going to need chemo and then I found out that I did,” says the 47-year-old Boston native, who most recently appeared as Mrs. California, the wife of Robert California played by James Spader on The Office. “I was really, really afraid.” Her fears—of debilitating nausea, isolation from family and friends, overwhelming fatigue and stomach upset—were unfounded, to her surprise. Spreading the word about the realities of chemo in the hopes that she can allay others’ anxieties is the focus of the Chemotherapy: Myths or Facts™awareness campaign for cancer patients and their caregivers. Tierney is partnering with pharmaceutical manufacturer Amgen on the effort, which features an informational website Editor-in-Chief Lisa Delaney talked to Maura about her advice for other cancer patients, her own treatment experience, and her life post treatment. You were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. How are you doing physically?

Maura Tierney: I feel really good. I always knock on wood when I say that, but I’m feeling great. Tell us a little bit about the Chemotherapy: Myths or Facts Campaign. Why was it important to sign on to this cause?

MT: It was important for me to sign on for two reasons. One, it really spoke to my experience when I was diagnosed. I drove myself crazy and had a lot of anxiety. My hope is that if people can arm themselves with the facts and recognize the misinformation out there about chemotherapy, it would go a long way toward relieving a lot of their anxiety prior to treatment.

Secondly, I’m able to donate the proceeds from the campaign to the UCLA Johnson Cancer Research Center. I had wonderful, outstanding doctors at UCLA. What were some of the misconceptions you had about chemotherapy going into it?

MT: I guess I was just afraid in general. I had great doctors, but I have heard of a lot of people whose doctors told them they couldn’t exercise, or couldn’t have their pets or family members around them, or who gave them specific dietary restrictions—none of which is true. For somebody who is just going into this and has this free-floating anxiety, what would you tell them to do?

MT: Well, if they go, patients can find a lot of information about chemotherapy—about misinformation, things you can or cannot do. The website also provides referrals to patient support groups and to other advocacy groups. So people can access a lot information on this website that answers their questions honestly. You often hear stories about chemo patients who can’t eat or are vomiting. Were these things not true for you?

MT: It was not true for me. I think I was really lucky. But also there have been many big advances in terms of the anti-nausea drugs you receive during chemo. They give you these drugs immediately, so fortunately, those kinds of side effects are a lot less prevalent now. A lot of people also get their ideas from the media. You were on ER, for example—maybe people have gotten false impressions from things they’ve seen on TV that maybe weren’t all that accurate, or maybe were accurate for the time but not so much now.

MT: On a show like ER, they’re going to dramatize the facts. It’s dangerous to get your health information from a hospital show. It’s also hard if you go onto the Internet—there’s a lot of information out there to sort through. So I would recommend not doing this. Just go straight to our website and you’ll find more streamlined information.

Another part of this campaign is that there’s going to be a video booth that travels around the country. People will be able to go in and talk about their story—what they learned, what they had wished they had known before, something they experienced that they think could help someone else go through their experience. This video booth will share a lot of information about people’s actual cancer survivor stories—that’s not something you can get from watching ER. If you were in the video booth and telling your story, is there something you would share that might help somebody else?

MT: I would say exercise, and I would also say ask as many questions as you possibly can. Don’t think any question is stupid. That also helped to calm me. Why exercise?

MT: I think that was the most important thing for me. Again, that’s why I think this campaign is important. Some people may think they can’t or shouldn’t exercise during chemo, but it’s really important. I’ve spoken to my doctors and oncologists who say it really makes a huge difference percentage-wise in helping people get through their treatment. Did you work out less than you did before your diagnosis?

MT: No—I didn’t. I walked on the beach; I ran; I hiked; I rode my bike. Exercising wasn’t as easy as before—it was definitely harder. But I think to just sit on the couch is not a good idea. You can get a certain sense of tranquility and calmness by getting out there and exercising. What would you say to someone who has a family member going into chemo and is freaked out? How can they best help their loved one?

MT: That’s a tricky question because every person is different and has different needs. Speaking from my experience, I think you have to pay close attention to your family member, but don’t treat them like they’re super sick—nobody wants to be treated like they’re ill. Don’t treat them like they’re invalids. But if they’re not feeling well, take care of them. I think you have to pay close attention to what the person needs.

RELATED: Top Cancer Survival Questions It’s so easy to see them as somebody else–partly because of the physical changes, but also because of that word “cancer.”

MT: It’s the physical thing, it’s not having hair, it’s that word cancer—those things scare friends and family. But they shouldn’t. How do you feel about being called a “survivor.

MT: I don’t love it, I gotta tell you. I feel like I’m tempting fate, but that’s what they call it. I’d rather be called a “champion” than a “survivor.” It’s often hard for people in the middle of cancer treatment to envision their life after treatment. How have you moved forward?

M: Life goes on. The thing that’s most significant for me is that I feel very grateful—to my friends, to my family, to my work. When you say “move forward,” that’s how I feel.