Sharing her battle on TV

“We didn’t edit out anything, All the dark things are there. It’s the truth,” O’Neal says of the upcoming NBC documentary, which shows Fawcett in treatment.

As tough as it was, Farrah Fawcett was ready for her close-up. Lying in bed at a German hospital after an aggressive round of chemotherapy and laser surgery last February, the actress—stricken 2½ years ago by anal cancer that has since spread to her liver—began vomiting into a bedpan. But when a camera documenting her illness turned away, Fawcett complained. “Why aren’t you filming this?” she asked. “This is what cancer is.”

In what will surely be remembered as the most poignant and difficult performance of her career, Fawcett, 62, the iconic Hollywood blonde who burst onto the scene in Charlie’s Angels and became the 1970s’ most successful pin-up, has captured every painful moment of her fight against cancer on film. Farrah’s Story, a two-hour documentary, is set to air on NBC May 15.

“She thought it would have a wonderful ending,” says Ryan O’Neal, her off-and-on companion of nearly 30 years and the father of their son Redmond, 24. Now her loved ones fear she may be gone by the time the program airs.

“She stays in bed now,” O’Neal, 68, told PEOPLE of Fawcett’s condition on May 4. “I rubbed her back this morning. When I got up to go, she whispered, ‘Don’t stop.’ She’s down to few words.”

Diagnosed in September 2006, Fawcett underwent chemotherapy and thought she was cancer-free when she carried a video camera to meet with her doctor on May 14, 2007. “It had been almost three months,” Fawcett says as she’s filmed reading from her own journal. “And if I was still cancer-free today, well, today would be the first day of the rest of my life.”

But that day, Fawcett learned that the cancer had not only returned but was now inoperable. Since then, Fawcett has made six trips to Germany for aggressive treatments (see box). “There were times when she seemed to have positive results,” O’Neal recalls. “She was playing tennis.”

Today her condition has severely deteriorated. She appears hauntingly gaunt in the documentary and, says O’Neal, “Farrah has lost her famous hair. I have it at home. She didn’t care. She doesn’t have a vanity about it.”

After a doctor’s letter suggested this could be his last chance to see Fawcett alive, Redmond—who is currently being held in a Los Angeles jail for violating probation on drug charges—was allowed to spend three hours visiting his mother last month. In the film Redmond, wearing his jumpsuit and shackles on his feet, is seen climbing into bed with his still-sleeping mother and crying, “Oh my gosh, my gosh. Oh my gosh.” Fawcett has not been told that her son is behind bars. When he arrived at the house, O’Neal recalls saying to him, “Don’t rattle your chains!”

“Redmond is terrified for his mother,” says O’Neal. After the visit, “I told him she’s rebounding. I lied to him. I lied to her. It’s the best thing.”

Fawcett’s days are now brightened by daily calls from her 91-year-old father in Texas and by O’Neal’s constant presence. “You should see Farrah when Ryan walks into the room,” says Alana Stewart, a close friend who served as camerawoman and an executive producer for the documentary over the past two years. “A smile just spreads across her face.”

Under the circumstances, smiles are not easy to come by. “I can’t hear a song, I can’t pass places that we were together without being stabbed in the heart,” says O’Neal. “I won’t know this world without her.”

Fawcett, a Catholic who often held rosary beads before treatments, “hasn’t had the last rites yet. We’re not there,” says O’Neal. In fact, Fawcett is still holding out hope for a “miracle” treatment she’s expected to receive in the coming days. “A last gasp,” says Ryan, breaking down in tears. “There was always a courage there. I fell in love with her all over again because of how she handled this.”

How she handled all of this is perfectly clear in one quiet moment caught on-camera. “I know now that I didn’t appreciate life,” she tells her doctor in a barely audible voice. “My deepest desire now is to live.”