Q&A with Cynthia Nixon

May 13, 2011
Lena Huang

CURE's Lena Huang sits down with actress Cynthia Nixon to discuss how cancer has affected her life.

I was treated in New York at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt. I received tremendous care. My cancer was found during a routine mammogram when I was 40. Because my mother had breast cancer twice, I started getting mammograms when I was 35. The wonderful Dr. Brown, who found the small cancer on my mammogram said, “You know I wouldn’t have thought anything of this. It is so small, except it wasn’t there on any of your previous mammograms.” I think that speaks volumes of how important it is to get mammograms, how important it is to get them regularly and how important it is to get them young. If I had started when I was 40, maybe they wouldn’t have caught it.

I had it biopsied, and it proved to be cancerous. I had a lumpectomy immediately. I was in a play at the time, and my doctor, anesthesiologist and all the people involved in the procedures and operation did an amazing job and went far and beyond for me. I didn’t want people to know I had the operation because I was in the play, and I thought it would be very distracting for audience members. The doctors did my procedure on a Sunday so I wouldn’t have to miss any performances. I healed from that. I didn’t have to have chemo but I had six and a half weeks of radiation. After that was completed, I went on tamoxifen, which I have been on for about four years. I had hot flashes in the beginning, which weren’t so fun, but they went away.

I feel like I received tremendous care from my various doctors, from the radiation oncologist who read my mammogram to the surgeon who performed the operation to my regular oncologist. I also had radiation technicians who were fantastic. They were so good in their job. They were so precise, but they were also great at hitting the right tone—just the right amount of focus at the task at hand with a little chit-chat but with enough seriousness. They never gave the sense that they were doing something scary or dire. They had a real lightness to their approach. Some people get very dire when you tell them you have cancer, and I would have to talk them out of the pit of despair. When you have cancer, you don’t want to spend time trying to convince other people that you will be OK—you want them to convince you or join you in the belief that you will be OK.

It’s so hard to know. I got cancer the year I turned 40. Turning 40 was a big deal for me, not necessarily in a bad way. It just felt like I had arrived at a real peak in my life—that I could look forward and I could look back. I had a big party and invited people from my past, my present, and people I didn’t know well but always wanted to be friends with. And I feel like the cancer only added to that feeling—that we are not going to be here forever. Are you living your life the way you want it to be? What are the things you’ve always wanted to do or meant to do? You’re still here, and you’re 40. Why aren’t you doing them? It sounds small but I started taking singing lessons, things like that, that really made me put my money where my mouth was. You can’t constantly defer—at some point, you have to step up.

She was diagnosed around 1979, and she discovered the cancer herself. She felt it and they biopsied it, and sure enough, it was cancerous. The doctor she went to wanted to take off the entire breast. My grandmother wanted to be a doctor but became a scientist who worked in a lab. My mom was raised to know doctors were good, smart people but were not gods and were fallible. You didn’t have to do something just because a doctor was telling you to. She did a fair amount of research and didn’t understand why doctors were taking off the entire breast if the cancer isn’t in the entire breast. She wondered why they didn’t save the nipple. She went around until she found a doctor who agreed with her. Lumpectomies at the time were cutting edge and new, but what was interesting is she found a surgeon she loved who was an older guy, but he saw things the way she did and was very forward thinking even though he was from an earlier generation.

No, Samantha got cancer in 2003, and I didn’t get diagnosed until 2006. We had a preponderance of female writers on Sex and the City—all but one of the writers was a woman. Many of them, in a short number of years, came down with different types of cancer but mostly breast cancer. One of them died of breast cancer. Another writer who got serious cancer was Jenny Bicks, who is a writer on the Big C. While she was going through it, our head writer Michael Patrick King said we’ve got to write about this. He always wanted to write about what was affecting the women in the writer’s room. He always wanted to be real and to deal with things real women were dealing with. He said, “All of you, by virtue of being yourself or through friends or family are dealing with cancer right now. How could we not include this?”

While Jenny was undergoing chemo, she had a difficult time. Her cancer was more serious than mine. Mine was a walk in the park compared to hers. So she was writing it, and we were filming it. A lot of things in the episodes were based on things that happened to her. She was very excited when I told her I was going to speak to oncology nurses tonight, in particular because she said they are absolutely her heroes. She said she cannot understand how to be that strong—to constantly, day in and day out, put yourself in situations that are so emotional, so difficult, for people who want to be anywhere else in the world. And you are there for them. You are their shepherd, their solace. She said some of the most important things told to her were from oncology nurses. For example, it was the oncology nurses who talked to her about how difficult it is on the partner of the person with cancer. She said she didn’t think she would have understood what her boyfriend was going through unless an oncology nurse said, “You don’t know how many guys can’t take this and leave, and your guy is standing there and standing firm. You’ve got to notice that and value that.”

So when Samantha on the show had cancer, they wanted to make sure that Smith’s story was told also. The actor really shaved his head, like the character, in solidarity with Samantha when she was losing her hair. They had to do it in one take because that’s it—you only got one head of hair! And when they filmed the scene where Samantha was having hot flashes from her medication and finally takes her wig off then all the women take their wigs off, we got as many cancer survivors as we could in the audience. I feel that when you have cancer the more you can gather people who’ve had it, particularly who have lived through it, it is very empowering.

I’m doing the Big C now on Showtime, and we are filming it right now. I’m about to do a Law and Order where I play a Julie Taymor-type character in a Spiderman-type show, and someone falls to their death flying and they are trying to figure out who did it. I’m doing a miniseries this summer in Budapest called World Without End. Next year, I’m doing a play on Broadway called Wit, which is about a woman who has stage 4 ovarian cancer.

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