Even as she was dying, Gilda Radner went for laughs. At home, Gene Wilder remembers, she enacted her infamous Saturday Night character Roseanne Roseannadanna, shouting at the cancer cells invading her body, ”Hey, what are you trying to do in here? Make me sick?” The cruel punch line, of course, was yes, and on May 20, 1989, ovarian cancer claimed America’s comedic sweetheart. Wilder was bereft. As Gilda once described their bond, ”My life went from black-white to Technicolor.”
Today, in the Connecticut country home where he and Gilda had lived after their 1984 marriage, Wilder smiles sadly as he pulls a pad of paper from a cluttered desk drawer. ”I found this the day after her funeral,” he says, then quietly reads the words his wife had written. ”How do you feel?” she scribbled next to a drawing of her body. ”Cramped, clogged, frightened,” she answered. ”What would make you feel not afraid?” she wrote. ”If someone could for sure tell me that everything would be okay.” It was a request no one could fulfill. However, after months of research and correspondence with cancer experts across the country, Wilder is now convinced that ”Gilda didn’t have to die.”
On May 9 he appeared before a House subcommittee to tell them so. ”At first I didn’t think it would make any difference if I testified, but we have to learn from the past,” he says of his decision to speak publicly about Gilda’s illness and the tragic misdiagnosis that led, he contends, to her unnecessarily early death. ”I’m not trying to make up for a wrong that can’t be righted,” he adds. Instead, hoping ”to help save the Gildas out there that still have a chance,” he is working with doctors to set up hotlines and support groups to provide women with information. He has also helped establish the Gilda Radner Ovarian Detection Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in L.A. to screen high-risk candidates and run basic diagnostic tests. He spoke to correspondent Jane Sims Podesta with the aim that others should learn from Gilda’s story.
UNTIL THREE WEEKS BEFORE GILDA died, I believed she would make it. If I made one contribution to this ovarian-cancer nightmare, it was that I was so dumb – or ignorant or innocent that I never believed she would die so soon. Never. Gilda would wake up frightened in the middle of the night and ask me over and over again, ”Am I going to die?” I kept telling her, ”I’ll die before you do.” And I meant it. Gilda was too strong a fighter. Her spirit would never give in to cancer, I thought. I was wrong.
Three days before she died, at Cedars-Sinai, she had to go down to radiology for a CAT scan – but the people there couldn’t keep her on the gurney. She was raving like a crazed woman – she knew they would give her morphine and was afraid she’d never regain consciousness. She kept getting off the cart as they were wheeling her out. Finally three people were holding her gently and saying, ”Come on, Gilda. We’re just going to go down and come back up.” She kept saying, ”Get me out, get me out!” She’d look at me and beg me, ”Help me out of here. I’ve got to get out of here.” And I’d tell her, ”You’re okay, honey. I know. I know.” They sedated her, and when she came back, she remained unconscious for three days. I stayed at her side late into the night, sometimes sleeping over. Finally a doctor told me to go home to get some sleep.
At 4 A.M. on Saturday, May 20, two years ago, I heard a pounding on my door. It was an old friend, a surgeon, who told me, ”Come on. It’s time to go.” When I got there, a night nurse, whom I still want to thank, had washed Gilda and taken out all the tubes. She put a pretty yellow barrette in her hair. She looked like an angel. So peaceful. She was still alive, and as she lay there, I kissed her. But then her breathing became irregular, and there were long gaps and little gasps. Two hours after I arrived, Gilda was gone. While she was conscious, I never said goodbye.
For us, it all started on the first Sunday in January 1986. We were driving to play tennis in Los Angeles at a friend’s house. Gilda began to feel what she described as a fog rolling in. She said, ”I can’t keep my eyes open. I think I’m going to fall asleep.” She lay back and looked like she had taken a sleeping pill. We made it to the tennis courts, and once she started playing, it went away.
We thought it probably wasn’t serious, but she went to an internist in Los Angeles to check it out. He did a full blood workup and came back and said, ”You have Epstein-Barr virus, chronic fatigue.” He told her, ”Go home, relax, don’t worry about it.” But over the next months the symptoms kept coming. They’d come for 10 days and go away. The sudden fatigue, the feeling of a fog would hit, and then she’d take a nap in the afternoon and wake up feeling fine.
We left L.A. for our home in Connecticut, and the symptoms got worse. She was so bloated she started to have trouble buttoning the top of her slacks. She’d look at me and say, ”I can’t close this button.” And she hadn’t gained any weight.
In June we went to Paris, and I took her to my favorite bistro. After we ate, she started feeling uncomfortable, and the discomfort grew when we went outside walking on the street. She said she had cramps, pains in her tummy, terrible bloating. She lay down and doubled over on the curb while I hollered for a taxi to go back to the hotel. In July we got back, and she started to develop what she called nervous legs. She couldn’t keep them still. She had shooting pains down her thighs. All the time she was moving them, even in bed at night. Moving, moving, moving until finally she went to sleep.
All these months we’d been seeing different doctors. A gynecologist in California did a pelvic examination and said everything was fine. One of the doctors thought the symptoms just had to do with her ovulating. In New York her gynecologist said she thought it was a stomach problem. We went to a gastroenterologist who did some blood work, a sonogram and a pelvic. He said it wasn’t anything life-threatening. He said, ”She’s a very nervous, emotional girl. She’s got to relax.” Gilda kept saying to all the doctors, ”It’s not cancer, is it?” But the doctors – every one of them for 10 months – took note of the fact that Gilda was a high-strung person and kept telling her, ”No, don’t worry. Go home and relax.”
Then Gilda started to bloat so much that her belly stuck out like a balloon. We went back to California, and she went to see the internist again. He sent her for another gynecological exam. They found nothing. Then he did more blood work, and finally, three weeks later, he called and told us to come in. ”Something’s irregular about your liver function,” he said. Gilda started to scream, ”What do you mean? What are you saying?”
On Oct. 24 he put her into the hospital. That night, 10 months after Gilda was first examined, the doctor told us, ”We’ve discovered a malignancy.” When she first heard the words ”ovarian cancer,” Gilda cried, but then she turned to me and said, ”Thank God, finally someone believes me!”
When I left that night, the doctor took me outside. I never told her this, but he said, ”She doesn’t have much chance.” They operated 36 hours later and found a grapefruit-size tumor. It was advanced ovarian cancer, Stage IV. The doctor told her, ”I left you clean.” Then came the world of chemotherapy once every three weeks for months. Gilda wanted to find humor in it to make it less scary. We made a video of her during chemotherapy that she would play back later, when she was feeling better. ”Look at me,” she’d say, bouncing around like she was the lightweight champion of the world. When her hair fell out, she was devastated, but eventually she made jokes about that too.
Of all the mistakes I made dealing with her illness, and I promise you I’ve made some I’m too ashamed to talk about, it was never an issue when Gilda lost her hair. Those little bean sprouts growing on top of her head were adorable, like a newborn baby. I thought it was sexy. And the more I thought that, the happier it made Gilda. But still, we both had rough times. No matter how often she went in for chemo, the night before was always bad because she knew she would be so sick afterward. ”I don’t want to go,” she’d say in tears. Gilda was going through hell, but for a while doctors thought the treatments were working. One internist told us, ”Do you realize how lucky you are? This could be a cure.” He gave us hope. But he didn’t know much about advanced ovarian cancer – and neither did we.
For weeks after Gilda died, I was shouting at the walls. I kept thinking to myself, ”This doesn’t make sense.” The fact is, Gilda didn’t have to die. But I was ignorant, Gilda was ignorant – the doctors were ignorant.
She could be alive today if I knew then what I know now. Gilda might have been caught at a less-advanced stage if two things had been done: if she had been given a CA 125 blood test as soon as she described her symptoms to the doctors instead of 10 months later, and if the doctors had known the significance of asking her about her family’s history of ovarian cancer. But they didn’t. So Gilda went through the tortures of the damned and at the end, I felt robbed.
All along I kept hearing Gilda saying, ”Don’t just sit there, dummy, do something!” So I started contacting experts, looking for explanations. Among the many doctors I called was Dr. Ezra Greenspan, Gilda’s New York oncologist. I asked him, ”What if someone had given Gilda a CA 125 blood test when she first started showing symptoms?” He told me, ”She could be alive today.” The rationale I have worked out for myself is simple, and I live with it. The doctors who worked with Gilda were mostly wonderful people. But here’s the thing: None of them put it all together and said, ”Wait a minute, now. Does anyone in your family have ovarian cancer?”
As it happens, Gilda’s grandmother, her cousin and her aunt had ovarian cancer, but she didn’t know it. If only they had taken a thorough family history, she would have found out. So many of the doctors wrote off what Gilda was telling them by saying she was a high-strung, emotional, nervous girl. But that’s not why she died.
If I need to cry or think a little bit, I’ll go over to the cemetery where she is buried to make sure the tree our friends planted is doing well and the grounds are kept up. I think one of the things that would make Gilda happiest is if Sparkle, her Yorkshire terrier, pee-peed right on top of her grave. One for Mama. She’d laugh.
I don’t feel guilty about what happened. We were all so ignorant about ovarian cancer. That’s one of the reasons I went to Congress to testify. I don’t like giving speeches. It makes me nervous. But I kept hearing Gilda shouting, ”It’s too late for me. Don’t let it happen to anyone else.”
I’ve learned a lot about ovarian cancer since Gilda died, but I’ve avoided talking about it in such a public way because I don’t want to pretend to be a doctor. But we have to learn from the past, from the mistakes. I’m hoping in some small way to help the other Gildas out there. When I was walking through the halls of Congress, waiting to testify, I could hear that raspy, whining voice – Gilda’s – saying, ”Go on, don’t make such a big deal of it. Now, don’t get mushy, don’t get melancholy. You’re not the victim. I was the victim. Don’t go soft and sad and poetic, as if a great tragedy happened to you.”
Okay, okay, Gilda. Now will you stop hollering in my ear!