February 17, 1997 12:00 PM

ELIZABETH TAYLOR SEEMED TO BE not inching up on age 65 so much as striding purposefully toward it. Sober, and with her chronic back pain diminished by a series of operations, the actress has lately been out in public more than in recent years, planning AIDS fund-raisers and arranging to travel to Istanbul later this month to raise money for children victimized by the war in Chechnya. During a 20/20 interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters due to air Feb. 14, Taylor said, “I feel healthy. I feel good, and that’s a major victory for me.” But a week after the Jan. 27 taping, she felt like a different woman. For one thing, she had bronchitis—a particular concern to the often-sick Taylor, who twice has almost died from pneumonia. Beyond that, though, Taylor “was feeling out of sorts,” says her friend, songwriter Carole Bayer Sager. “She was uncoordinated—just totally off. She was fearful that maybe she had had a stroke.”

Taylor went straight to the hospital, and on Monday, Feb. 3, her doctors at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles ordered a brain scan and discovered a tumor in the lining of her left frontal lobe. Though the seriousness of the growth won’t be fully known until surgery is performed, the good news is that it appears to pose little threat and can be removed with a relatively common procedure. “We have been told by the doctors that the chances are, overwhelmingly, that it is benign,” says Neil Papiano, her friend and lawyer. Many, including actress Hope. Lange and designer Ralph Lauren, have made full recoveries after surgery for benign brain tumors. Yet Dr. Charles Freedman, one of Taylor’s former physicians, warns that “any time when you open the skull and start digging around, it’s a big deal.”

The surgery would be best done as soon as possible after Taylor’s bronchitis clears up and her fever lessens. But her first reaction was that she wanted to postpone the operation until Feb. 17, the day after a taping of a star-studded ABC TV special, Happy Birthday Elizabeth—A Celebration of Life, meant to mark her 65th birthday and raise money to battle AIDS. After talking to Taylor, Bayer Sager had doubts whether the-actress was up to the task. “I told her now is the time to take care of herself,” she says. “I asked her to cancel.” Taylor badly wants to go on the show, but it’s not clear whether doctors will allow her to. “Elizabeth told me,” Bayer Sager says, “that her thoughts weren’t very clear and it probably wouldn’t be a good idea for her to do the celebration.”

Taylor certainly has experience at soldiering on, starting from the time in 1944 when the 12-year-old starlet sustained a back injury after she fell off a horse while filming National Velvet. In 1953 she underwent emergency surgery to prevent blindness after a piece of flint blew into her eye. Three years later doctors operated to repair a crushed spinal disk. Taylor endured an appendectomy (in 1957) followed by an ovarian cyst (1973), amoebic dysentery (1975), neck and leg injuries from a Tel Aviv car crash (1983), and (in 1994 and ’95) the replacement of both hips following osteoporosis.

Partly because of the way she has lived her life—she has been married eight times, divorced seven, and in and out of the Betty Ford Center twice—Taylor has had more than the usual share of emotional pain, too. In the last few years, she has lost her mother, Sara, who died in 1994 at age 99, and her good friend and longtime publicist Chen Sam, who succumbed to cancer last year. “Some people just have bad luck,” says Dr. Freedman. “The depth of her problems have been much greater than have been portrayed in the papers.”

As always in times of trouble, Taylor’s friends are rallying around her. “She is an incredible woman,” says producer Gary Pudney. “I think [AIDS activism] keeps her going.” Lawyer Papiano describes Taylor as “almost another wonder of the world. This is just another test that she will over-come. Her spirits are terrific, as they always are in periods of crisis.”

Taylor once told PEOPLE that she is amazed at her own recuperative powers. “I’ve had sort of an uncanny ability all my life,” she said in 1990, “to be able to pull myself back from the avalanche just in time.” Last week she said, through Papiano, that “my spirits are good, and I look forward to a complete recovery.”

Taylor’s surgery is now tentatively scheduled for Feb. 17. With or without her, the TV birthday party will go on with Michael Jackson, John Travolta, Liza Minnelli and other top stars. Still, by the time it is broadcast on Feb. 24, Pudney predicts, “she will be up and watching it and wearing Valentino.”