“I have a power in singing—I reach people, and people reach me,” says Laurie Beechman. The 41-year-old singer with a 3½-octave range has made that point time and again during her 15 years on Broadway (where she earned a 1982 Tony nomination as the Narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and starred as Grizabella in Cats in 1984) as well as on her three solo albums. “My singing,” she says, “is an affirmation that I am alive.”
Music took on even greater meaning for Beechman in 1989, when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Because it is one of the deadliest forms of malignancy—it claims the lives of 12,000 women each year, and symptoms do not appear until the cancer has spread—Beechman immediately underwent a hysterectomy, followed by 10 months of chemotherapy.
Born in Philadelphia, Beechman is the second of three daughters of the late Gino Beechman, an opera singer and restaurateur, and his ex-wife Dolly, a retired Penn State drama teacher turned playwright. Dolly has long been her daughter’s biggest fan—even when Beechman, eager to break into show business, dropped out of New York University after her sophomore year in 1974. These days, Beechman considers Dolly and her second husband, Nathan Schnall, along with Beechman’s husband of 2½ years, Neil Mazzella, 44, a Broadway set builder, “my greatest support system.” Beechman is currently promoting her latest CD, The Andrew Lloyd Webber Album, released this spring. “My middle name is Hope,” she says. “My mother named me well.” Beechman spoke with correspondent Denise Lynch at her ranch-style home outside Manhattan.
I DIDN’T NOTICE ANY SYMPTOMS until October 1988. I was in Florida doing Dangerous Music, in which I played a rock singer, and it was a very arduous show. In Act I, I was in a choreographed rape scene, and Act II had an 11-minute, eight-song rock segment. I was very tired and had to nap every day. I couldn’t separate how physical the show was from how I was actually feeling. I’d had a complete pelvic exam the month before, and everything was fine. I have no family history of ovarian cancer, so at first I didn’t suspect that there was anything wrong.
By the time my mother and Nate came to see me in November, my guts hurt—not in any specific place, just a dull, chronic pain. So two months later, when I went to Philadelphia to join the national tour of Les Miserables, I saw a gastroenterologist. He felt something suspicious in my abdomen and ordered a CAT scan and sonogram. Somehow I knew it was something serious, and sure enough the doctor said that the test results indicated I needed exploratory surgery. Gynecological cancer was the primary possibility. Otherwise he said it might be benign cysts covering all my abdominal organs. I had no idea what surgery was going to be like, and I couldn’t have survived it without my mom and Nate. He’s a gynecologist and he orchestrated everything. I was prepared for a hysterectomy—I was 35 and had already come to terms with not having children. My main concern was to recover.
Everything happened so fast, I was in shock. During the operation, which happened a week later in Philadelphia, the surgeon found numerous tumors on my colon and throughout my reproductive system. He removed my ovaries, uterus and appendix, and a six-inch section of my bowel. When I came to, he told me it was cancer, that they had removed the largest tumors—the biggest was six centimeters—and that chemotherapy would take care of the rest. He didn’t use the word “cured” or say it wouldn’t happen again. I didn’t get hysterical or think about dying. I was thinking about what I had to do to live.
That included 10 months of chemotherapy. Every four weeks I would check into the hospital for two days, where a combination of two drugs, cisplatin and Cytoxan, were administered through an intravenous catheter implanted in my chest. I’d throw up a couple of times with each treatment and intially lost 15 pounds, which I soon regained. And my hair fell out—which can be devastating, but it’s not at the top of the list of upsetting things. Plus I compensated for it by getting into wigs and new clothes. I developed numbness in my hands and feet, which later went away, and suffered some permanent hearing loss—but nothing life-altering. It never affected my career. Once my treatments ended, I did Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in Philadelphia for two months. That was followed by six months in Les Mis on Broadway. It felt like a miracle—I’d feared I’d never be on a Broadway stage again. In 1990 I also recorded my first solo album, Listen to My Heart.
Every three months I’d have a checkup, a CAT scan and a CA 125 blood test, which measures levels of a certain protein that is present in more than 80 percent of those with ovarian cancer. Every test came back normal. But when I went for my checkup in January 1991, the doctors told me that a spot they had been tracking near one of my adrenal glands, next to the kidneys, had grown. I was pretty shell-shocked. I had no symptoms and felt fine. I remember sitting in my mother’s kitchen and just crying. No organs had to be removed, but I did need six chemotherapy treatments, this time as an outpatient. For a few days after each dose I’d feel exhausted and nauseous, but I managed to keep all my singing engagements.
In September 1991, when the chemo was over, I joined Cats on Broadway for six weeks and then joined Les Mis again in Philadelphia over Christmas. As the new year began, I remember thinking, “I feel great. Life is wonderful. Wouldn’t it be great to be in love?” Then in March 1992 a friend invited me to New York City for Neil’s birthday party. Neil had built the set for Cats, and we’d been friends for 10 years. I hadn’t seen him for a while, and at his party we fell in love. It was an enchanted courtship. We got married in October and, after a honeymoon in Paris, I moved into his house. Neil walked into this with his eyes open. He accepted the fact that cancer was part of my life. We didn’t dwell on it. And living with it doesn’t require discussion. He is one of the miracles in my life. When I crack a grin, he’s right there—and he’s there when I’m a mess too.
Our first year of marriage was a peak. So was ’93 and ’94. I had a 3½-year remission, work was great, and Neil and I were madly in love. Then last January, as I was recording the Webber album, I went in for my six-month checkup, and doctors discovered a tumor in my pelvis. I went to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City for a second opinion, and again surgery, followed by chemotherapy, was recommended. I finished the album the week before—determined that whatever I faced, it would not interfere with that.
Though Neil and I always knew a recurrence was possible, we were tremendously disappointed. I had had no symptoms. My CA 125 levels were only slightly elevated. I kept telling him how sorry I was. But Neil’s tremendous faith in God gave him such strength that it helped me too.
Because I’d been in remission before, the doctors thought I’d succeed again, this time with six treatments of taxol, a chemotherapy drug made from the Pacific yew tree, and currently the best hope for women with ovarian cancer. I couldn’t wait to start. In that taxol bottle I saw life. The first dose was on Feb 6. Afterward I felt beaten up. With taxol I have some joint pain—it’s like getting the flu once a month—and I haven’t found anything to completely eradicate the nausea. If I eat the wrong thing, juice for example, it won’t stay down. And my hair has fallen out again.
But I can work, I can eat, I can party, I can make love. Chemotherapy has given me a life, and I can live with it. I’m optimistic about survival. There may be no cure for me, but there is remission. Sure I get depressed. I would be crazy if I didn’t. People ask me how I live with this. I used to think I was in denial. But I am optimistic. I have no other way to be. And there are miracles.