Marilu Henner had only been dating Michael Brown for two months when the two decided to take a trip together in 2003 — but little did they know, that vacation would change their lives forever.
Henner, former star of the hit sitcom Taxi, went to fix her hair in the bathroom when she noticed a faint trail of blood inside the toilet. She immediately asked Brown about it, but he shrugged it off — only to find out months later that the blood that had been appearing in his urine was actually a sign that he was suffering from bladder cancer.
Fourteen years later, Brown is in remission, and in honor of Bladder Cancer Awareness Month, Henner is teaming up with Genentech, the maker of the immunotherapy Tecentriq for Bladder Cancer and the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network (BCAN) to open up about her husband’s experience with the disease — and the important role she played as the caregiver.
“I knew Michael in college — he was my college roommate’s boyfriend,” Henner tells PEOPLE. “We reconnected 14 years ago, within a week we were saying ‘I love you,’ and we knew were going to spend the rest of our lives together.”
When Henner asked about the blood in Brown’s urine, he told her that that he’d been experiencing it on and off for two years, that he’d seen his doctor about it, and that it was “no big deal.”
“Now, I’m a health advocate, at that point I’d written eight books,” recalls Henner. “I said: ‘No, no, no — blood in your urine for two years is not a good sign.’ ”
Brown returned to his doctor, who ended up misdiagnosing the type of cancer he had.
“His doctor said: ‘Oh yeah, it’s cancer, I lopped it off, no big deal, come back in five months,’ ” says Henner. “That wasn’t good enough for me, so I took him to my doctors and he found out he has a much more virulent cancer — he had carcinoma in situ, rather than just the papillary kind that grows up like a little skin tag. His doctor had completely missed it, so we set off on this journey together.”
“Everybody said: ‘Why don’t you bail on this guy?’ ” she recalls. “I was like: ‘No, he’s the love of my life! I’ve already had two husbands. This is the guy.’ ”
Of his diagnosis, Henner says Brown “couldn’t believe it.”
“The first day is the worst day. You get that diagnosis, and that person, that patient — they just have that glazed-over look,” she says. “They just see their life flash in front of them, and they feel like this is a death sentence.”
“He said: ‘You must have had a sixth sense about it,’ ” she recalls. “I just decided I would leave no stone unturned — we were going to figure this out together.”
As a result, Henner threw herself into the challenge of understanding the disease — ultimately writing a book about her experience last year, Changing Normal: How I Helped My Husband Beat Cancer.
“I got very involved and did a lot of research. We put a protocol together for him that totally changed his life, and he’s been in remission for 13.5 years now,” she says. “He didn’t have to go through bladder cancer surgery or any of that.”
Despite bladder cancer being one of the most common cancers in the U.S., it can be incredibly difficult to talk about, largely because it involves intimate parts of the body and symptoms that are perceived to be embarrassing, such as blood in the urine, painful urination, the sudden urge to pee or changes in sexual function. But according to Henner, the caregiver can play a huge role in “opening up the dialogue.”
“Have the conversation with that person,” she insists. “Be honest, be sensitive, be daring, use humor — use whatever it takes to have those conversations. You can’t be afraid — if I had been afraid to ask Michael about the blood in the toilet, what would have happened? He might have never mentioned it to me. He had become so used to having a little bit of blood in his urine every few months, so it became like nothing to him. But meanwhile, he was getting sicker and sicker.”
“With Michael and I, I think our fearlessness and our ability to talk to one another was so important,” she continues. “We’d make jokes about everything.”
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Henner also says it’s important to “have sensitivity” in these situations.
“You can’t be like: ‘Well, what’s wrong with you?!’ You can’t have that tone,” she says. “The more loving you are, the easier it is going to be for the other person to talk. And the more you educate yourself, that knowledge becomes power.”
“I learned so much doing my research,” she says. “And that way, I always had a list of questions when we went to the doctor. I made sure that anything Michael wanted to know that came up in conversations between us, or just information or reassurances he needed, I had that on my list of questions for the doctor. You can’t be afraid to ask questions.”
In terms of treatment, Brown ended up doing a “a whole combination of things,” which ultimately worked.
“He changed his diet, he ate better, he exercised, did stress management, immunotherapy — so many things,” says Henner. “He really went through a lot.”
Now, he gets a standard protocol checkup every six months to a year, and his “quality of life didn’t change at all,” says Henner. “He actually got healthier as a result of all the things that he did.”
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And while there were difficult days — “We were afraid a lot of the time,” Henner admits — it was all worth it in the end.
“The whole time, I just constantly visualized a future between us — I just saw it,” she says, tearing up. “I always knew that the two of us were going to be together and things were going to work out.”
“Many times the patient is very depressed, so the more positive and hopeful you can be and hopeful you can be as a caregiver, the better,” she says. “A lot of times a patient gives up and just says: ‘Okay, I’m going to die anyway, let me just give up and be depressed and have this black cloud over my head all the time.’ I think Michael felt hopeful because we were in a new relationship, and I was so gung-ho on helping him.”
“If you can get somebody — and it may not even be your partner, it might be a family member or someone who’s really in your corner — let that person be the caregiver,” she says. “And if that’s you, just look within yourself and figure out how you can be helpful. It’s not just up to the doctors to cure you.”