April 30, 2001 12:00 PM

Huddled in the backseat of a black Lincoln Town Car on March 28, Suzanne Somers was in a panic. Moments earlier she had felt “totally flustered,” she says, while revealing on Larry King Live a fact she had kept private for over a year: She has been battling breast cancer. Her reluctant admission followed a tabloid report that claimed Somers had had liposuction to improve her figure when in fact, she insists, the lipo was performed to even out swelling from radiation treatments. “Saying the words publicly out loud-‘I have breast cancer’—rocked my soul,” says Somers. And her apprehension was only compounded as she left CNN’s L.A. office. Piqued by her disclosure that she was skipping recommended chemotherapy in favor of treatment with a fermented mistletoe extract called Iscador, a news crew I barked questions as a photographer aimed and fired. Ducking into her car, she recalls, “I turned to my husband, Alan, and said, ‘Oh my God, what have we done? What have we done?’ ”

Only time will tell. For the woman who has built a multimillion-dollar empire on diet and fitness, the timing of the liposuction disclosure could not have been worse. More than an embarrassment, the suggestion that the 54-year-old Thigh-Master and ButtMaster queen needed surgery to sculpt her body threatened to ruin her credibility, she says. About to embark on a national promotional tour for her new book, Eat, Cheat and Melt the Fat Away, Somers says she was suddenly faced with publishers who “were starting to freak” about what comics dubbed Thighgate. Even more troubling was the fact that the method she had chosen to combat her cancer was suddenly under public attack. For the veteran TV actress (her latest sitcom, Step by Step, aired from 1991 to 1998), watching strangers, including doctors, discuss her body on TV “horrifies me,” she says. “Unless you’ve examined me and my file, it’s irresponsible.” And for now she stands by her choice to avoid chemotherapy. “My decisions were very informed,” she says. And since the lumpectomy she had a year ago, followed by radiation treatments, rid her of cancer, Somers says even the various doctors she consulted are split on the need for chemo. “This isn’t about my losing my hair,” she says. “I’m concerned about what chemo does to the healthy cells.” (See box page 77.)

But her primary oncologist, Melvin J. Silverstein, director of the breast program at the University of Southern California’s Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and Hospital, remains more concerned about the unhealthy ones. “Early detection was so important for Suzanne. Right now, she has a very good chance of being cured forever,” he says. “She is cancer-free.” But, as he warned her, “cancer is like a criminal. It does whatever it wants.” Somers was one of some 225,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer last year, most of whom opted for conventional treatment such as the drug tamoxifen and chemotherapy. Although he concedes it is debatable, Silverstein recommended she undergo chemo—which would increase her chances of survival by 10 to 20 percent—for precautionary reasons. (Roughly 40,000 women die of the disease annually.) He remains “open-minded” to the benefits of Iscador. And both he and her other doctors respect Somers’s decision to try alternative methods, although they consider them risky for her or any one else. “We told her that was probably not the right thing to do,” says Silverstein. “We were concerned that if it ever got out, a lot of women would come in and say, ‘I don’t want to do these normal, standard things. I want to do Iscador.’ ”

Somers, for one, shares his concern. “It’s a huge burden for me that women might throw away their cancer drugs and go to Iscador because—and here’s my point—I don’t know that it works. I’m hoping it does. I believe it does, but I don’t know. I am not advising any other woman to do this. It’s just what I chose for myself.” Pausing in her L.A. home (she has another in Palm Springs) to glance at her 19-year-old Persian cat, Chrissy Snow—named for the Three’s Company character that made Somers famous 24 years ago—she smiles, then shrugs. “All my life my breasts have gotten me into trouble. When I was a model they were always too big. On Three’s Company I was queen of the jiggle. It just seems like my breasts are a big part of me, and once again here they are. I wasn’t ready to talk about this,” she adds. “But now that it’s happened, I’m going to turn it into a blessing and gather all the information I can and pass it on, because I realize other women listen to me.”

Somers’s odyssey began on April 4, 2000, the day she had scheduled a routine mammogram, to be followed by a round of business meetings. “I was all dolled up,” she recalls. “It was going to be a normal day.” A patient of Silverstein’s since he treated her for a benign cyst 15 years earlier, she had given herself monthly examinations to check her naturally dense breasts and was pleased but not surprised when, after the mammogram, Silverstein told her, “Everything looks okay.” It was only as an afterthought, she says, that he suggested she try his new ultrasound machine, which is able to detect up to 20 percent of lumps that mammograms can miss. A few minutes later, lying on a table, she says, “I saw a look in the radiologist’s eyes that made me say, ‘What?’ ” Suspecting the presence of a tumor, the radiologist told Somers she would have to put an ultrasound-guided needle into her right breast to get a “bite” of the tissue. Somers assured the doctor she had had water drained from benign cysts several times before and wasn’t concerned with needles, much less a tumor. But describing the biopsy Somers was about to undergo, the radiologist said, “Well, this is going to hurt a little more.” Since it was not open surgery, general anesthesia was not used, and it did hurt. She braced herself as seven times the doctor inserted what she calls a “big, long horse needle” into her breast. Each time a blade inside the needle cut into the tumor to extract a tissue sample, she says, “it felt like a gun going off in my breast.”

For the next hour she and Alan Hamel, 64, her manager and husband of 23 years, sat in the waiting room as the doctors examined the tissue samples they had warned her looked troubling. “We were silent, hardly talking, in disbelief, like this can’t be happening, wondering is this a little blip or the end of my life?” says Somers. When Silverstein returned, he led the couple into a private room and broke the bad news: Somers had a malignant tumor deep in her right breast. “It was like a black cloud descended,” says Hamel. “That day was the saddest day of my life.”

At home, Somers and Hamel tried to digest the news. Her thoughts turned to her sister Maureen Gilmartin, 62, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer seven years earlier. Though a mastectomy saved her life and she has not had a recurrence, the surgery left her with no feeling in parts of her chest. “After Maureen’s surgery, she said to me, ‘You have to be very vigilant now, you have a predisposition,’ ” recalls Somers. But no one else in their family had ever had breast cancer, and at the time, says Somers, she wasn’t worried. Now Sil-verstein assured her that he could remove her 2.4-cm tumor—about the size of a quarter—with a lumpectomy. “We’re going to have to take a lot of your breast,” he said. “But I’ll reconstruct it and make it beautiful.” At that moment, in fact, beauty was the last thing on Somers’s mind. For the first two days after her diagnosis, she says, “I didn’t sleep, but I wasn’t awake either. Everything was surreal and cloudy.” She and Hamel “cried, but more than crying there was silence. Neither of us knew what to say. We were just stunned.”

They first broke the news to their. children—Bruce, 35, a TV-commercial director who is Somers’s son from a teenage marriage; and Hamel’s two children from a previous marriage, Stephen, 36, a film producer and Leslie, 39, a fashion designer. “I started by telling them, ‘There’s nothing to worry about. I’m going to be fine,’ ” says Somers.

“The phone was very, very quiet, but I think I was convincing in my bravado. I kept saying, ‘Aren’t I lucky they caught it early? Aren’t I lucky?’ ” But of course her loved ones worried. “The second you hear ‘cancer,’ you think it’s going to be years of the worst and ultimately it will be fatal,” says Bruce. “That’s where I immediately went.”

Somers at first desperately wanted to make sense of her illness. “Health and fitness and strength are my life,” she says. “I eat well, I don’t drink caffeine, I’ve never smoked, I’ve always exercised. I kept looking at myself and thinking, ‘How could I look so healthy?’ ” Then she realized, “I could guess until the day I die and never have an answer.” And so she stopped asking, “Why me?” and started thinking, “What now?” Says Somers: “It was like I went to war. I had a visualization of this creepy guy inside the tumor, and every time he would try to even step outside the tumor, I’d say, ‘Get back in there!’ My war was to contain him within those bounds until I could muster up the forces and remove the whole thing.”

She got her opportunity a week after her diagnosis. Because Silverstein told her that a lumpectomy followed by radiation would give her an 85 percent chance of saving her breast forever, she agreed. After testing key lymph nodes and determining that her cancer had not spread, he successfully removed the tumor and performed oncoplastic surgery—moving around breast tissue “so you don’t get dimples and holes in the breast,” he explains. “It went absolutely perfectly.” Recovery seemed less perfect. Lying in bed, Somers felt out of it and “in incredible pain” and counted on Hamel for support. “For five days he stayed in bed with me,” she says. “Business didn’t exist. He brought me soup and turned off the phones.”

Still, not even her husband’s devotion could alleviate the effects of 30 nearly consecutive days of radiation treatments, which left her nauseous, exhausted and in pain. Though she rarely complained, says Bruce, “I would see her wince every once in a while, especially if one of my daughters ran up and hugged her. I’d say, ‘Are you all right?’ And she would say, ‘It feels like my entire chest is on fire.’ ” Somers blames the radiation for a swelling where her breasts meet her back that she says compelled her to have liposuction: “That’s what I wanted to get rid of. I’m in the body business, and this was affecting the clothes I could wear. It’s not about having a perfect body, but about having a body I could be proud of at this age.” For his part, Silverstein was surprised to learn of the swelling (“It’s certainly not a common result of radiation”) and of the liposuction, which he professes to know nothing about.

Liposuction isn’t the only measure taken by Somers that has baffled some of her doctors. For starters, Silverstein wishes she had heeded his advice not only to get chemotherapy, but also to give up the plant-based estrogen she has taken for three years to replace hormones lost because of menopause and to start taking tamoxifen, a drug that stops the body from producing its own estrogen. Conventional medical wisdom, he says, holds that estrogen speeds up the growth of cancer cells. “Can I prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt? No,” he says. But most oncologists, he maintains, will advise a breast-cancer patient “not to take estrogen. Period.” Somers cannot cite statistics or studies to support her decision to stay on the estrogen; it’s just her gut feeling, she says. “When I’m trying to fight a serious disease,” she explains, “the idea of taking me off the one thing that I believe is life-giving and improves my immune system didn’t make sense to me—and no amount of [doctors’] worry could dissuade me.”

She is, she says, open to the idea of chemotherapy should her circumstances change. Though listening to experts discuss her health on TV has been unsettling, she adds, it has also been informative. She paid attention, for instance, when leading alternative-medicine advocate Dr. Andrew Weil said on Larry King Live that a tumor as large as hers might well have metastasized to other parts of her body. “That disturbed me,” she says. “That made an argument for chemo for me.” Yet while she plans to keep up on the latest research and to have her doctors monitor her regularly, she is unwilling for now to “put my body through the hell of chemotherapy,” she says. Her wait-and-see attitude, however, is not without risk. As Silverstein notes, chemotherapy is most effective when started within two months of diagnosis; Somers’s diagnosis was a year ago. “The real question is, ‘Would it work now as well as it would have worked then?’ The answer is, nobody knows. She’d be her own experiment—but then, she is her own experiment,” says Silverstein.

One that her friends and family watch admiringly, and with total loyalty. Even her sister Maureen, who knows firsthand the dangers Somers faces, “is 100 percent behind me,” says Somers. “She knows that I agonize over every choice.” Her husband is steadfastly behind her too. “I really don’t have a concern,” says Hamel about the alternative treatments. “Suzanne spends hours researching things and is able to make an informed decision. Once she arrives at that point, I’m fully supportive.” He has grown accustomed to the self-administered daily injections that occasionally leave Somers’s belly bruised. By now, she has mastered the process of filling a hypodermic needle and injecting an Iscador solution into her stomach each morning. “It’s freaky,” she says of the shots, which are prescribed for her by a holistic doctor in Beverly Hills and cost Sill for a two-month supply. “I fill the needle up and I have to just bring it down in one fell swoop,” she says. “But I’m good at it. I’d be a good junkie.” Joking aside, Somers is thankful to be alive and to still have feeling in her breast. “I didn’t realize that I cared, but it’s where I hug my children and my grandchildren and my husband,” she explains. “It’s beyond a sexual thing. It’s the nurturing part of us.”

As for Hamel, he says he finds his wife more alluring now than ever. “We have a great sexual, sensual relationship,” he says. Somers, meanwhile, says she feels more loving toward everyone and everything lately: “I talk to the cat differently now. The birds are singing more sweetly, and the foxes don’t scare me. I Everything has slowed down. Cancer does that to you That’s the first of the blessings.” With luck, she’ll have a long lifetime to discover the others.

Karen S. Schneider

Elizabeth Leonard in Los Angeles

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