Actress Marlee Matlin on Facing Cancer with Humor, Grit and Understanding

CURE, Hematology Special Issue (October), Volume 1, Issue 1

Actress Marlee Matlin shares her strategy for weathering health challenges, including her father's myeloma diagnosis.

Lizzy Smith, founder of myelomacrowd.org and nominator Multiple Myeloma Heroes recipient; Academy Award-winning actress, Marlee Matlin; MM Heroes honoree Jennifer Ahlstrom, a founder of myelomacrowd.org; and Kathy Latour, co-foudner of CURE Magazine

Marlee Matlin, the actress who won an Academy Award for her leading role in the film “Children of a Lesser God” and has appeared in a variety of movies and television series in the 30 years since, was the keynote speaker at CURE®’s inaugural 2016 Multiple Myeloma Heroes™ event, which recognized eight individuals and one organization for offering above-and-beyond support to patients affected by the blood cancer.

While on hand for the March 18 event in Miami, Matlin sat down with CURE® to discuss her experiences seeing her father through his journey with myeloma, her admiration for the evening’s heroes and her own recipe for dealing with life’s challenges.

Your father, Donald Matlin, lived with, and eventually died from, multiple myeloma. Can you tell us about his journey with the disease?

Matlin, who lost her hearing at the age of 18 months, spoke to CURE® with the help of her sign language interpreter, Jack Jason.Matlin: We found out in 2003. Multiple myeloma was a term we’d never even heard of before, and, naturally, we were all scared in the family, as we learned it was a form of cancer. I was concerned about how Dad was going to live on a day-to-day basis. I wanted to make sure he was comfortable and taken care of.

But to me it’s not only about that — it’s about the fact that he didn’t let multiple myeloma stop him from doing what he’d been doing all his life, which was to work and be with his family. He was more concerned with taking care of my mom than with wanting anyone to take care of him. He lived his normal daily life and never let multiple myeloma stop him from being who he was, and that, I think, is the most important message. It was about the person, not the disease.

You have participated with Stand Up to Cancer in fundraising events aimed at fighting cancer. Now, you're here speaking to patients with multiple myeloma and the people who support them. Why does this area of advocacy remain so important to you?

When I was growing up, I dealt with barriers, naturally, as someone who is deaf, and my dad and my mom taught me to never take no for an answer, to just walk around barriers. It didn’t come easy — it was a struggle — and the day that my father found out that he had multiple myeloma, he knew what he had to do: Now it was his turn to take on that mantle, and so we traded roles. Despite that he lost his battle, I still view him as my teacher; I still view him as my rock. He’s there with me.My sister-in-law had breast cancer and went through radiation and chemotherapy, and I think she is probably one of the bravest women I’ll ever meet, and I really admire her. It was hard to watch and to listen to all the things that she had to go through, but in the end, she stood up — just like in the name of the organization — to cancer, and she told her family she would fight it tooth-and-nail, and she did. She’s now in remission, in her fourth year. My mom had cancer, too — she had a lumpectomy but has been on a regimen, and she’s also in remission. As you know, my dad had multiple myeloma, and my grandmother had colon cancer and passed away almost 30 years ago.

What were your impressions of the Multiple Myeloma Heroes™ event?

It’s hard to see family members having to deal with cancer. For me, it was important to get involved to give back to those who supported me when I was growing up and dealing with my own barriers. Hopefully, we can raise as much money as possible to fight this disease.It’s great to be not honored for my accomplishments, but to be able to meet the real people out there fighting multiple myeloma — the doctors, the patients, the nurses.

You mentioned that, as a deaf person, you've faced challenges. What have you learned that might be helpful to those with multiple myeloma, who are facing their own challenges?

I think each and every hero is a point of inspiration for millions of people who are dealing with cancer. The folks who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro (as part of the Moving Mountains fundraiser sponsored, in part, by CURE®) showed that, in essence, multiple myeloma is a mountain that you don’t want to stop you. Raising money while physically overcoming that mountain is a matter of inspiration and courage, and I was really glad to be able to see each one of them get these awards for their own efforts, and on behalf of all the patients who may not be here tonight but are dealing with this every day and need to know that they’re not alone.Don’t let people define who you are by what it is you have.

Don’t be afraid to learn about yourself, and take the opportunity to communicate and to listen. You have every right to feel what it is you feel, and don’t let others remove those feelings from you. Let others who care for you care for you.

People have different ways of approaching adversity, and people have different ways of helping those in adversity. Whatever it may be, try not to judge them, because they don’t necessarily understand what you’re going through. However they’re expressing themselves to you, accept it with love.

In your keynote address, you said that keeping your sense of humor is another good strategy for dealing with adversity. How did you develop that philosophy?

With my father’s passing, so many people expressed so many different thoughts about him in so many ways. They said they were sorry; they’d tell me stories about my dad; some gave me advice. You need to understand that there are so many ways of looking at something, so many facets. If you’re the kind of person who wants to be private, that’s fine, too. People are human, and we all have a right to be different. I think what’s important is that we just share a brotherhood and a sisterhood with each other.Well, my dad didn’t accept my deafness lightly. At first, he was devastated, and he was grieving and he was feeling guilty. It wasn’t something he felt comfortable talking about, but at the same time he dealt with life and whatever challenges it brought with humor, and he taught me that humor is the best way to deal with adversity.

I had to laugh when I was working on a television show and an executive came to the studio to watch, and he asked the producer, “You know, that Marlee Matlin — she’s fantastic. Is she going to be deaf for the whole show?” When you’re flying in a plane and the flight attendant brings you a menu in braille because you’re deaf — you have to laugh at these kinds of situations.

I think it’s the best way to feel better about things. No one is perfect, and we all should learn to respect each other, and if it means doing it through humor, why not?