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Marilu Henner on Bladder Cancer

Marilu Henner on Bladder Cancer
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Photo: Courtesy of Marilu Henner

BY KITT WALSH

Though it may seem like they are the biggest babies in the world when they catch a cold, men are notorious about hiding symptoms that may mean they have a serious disease. It has something to do with machismo and, when those symptoms are embarrassing ones, men clam up even tighter.

They can’t, for example, bring themselves to mention that they are having trouble urinating or, worse, have spotted blood in their urine–all because they can’t mention urine at all. Because of their silence, way too many of them die of bladder cancer and it is largely men doing the dying.

Bladder cancer is 3-4 times as likely to occur in men (and 9 out of 10 of those cases are most in people over 55). According to a recent survey, 62% of people think that the symptoms of that painful urination or blood are embarrassing to discuss even with “significant others.” Those significant others are the ones who are the caretakers—the wives and girlfriends of the men affected. It is often up to them to start the conversations with their men and later, their doctors, and many feel alone, isolated or ill-equipped to do so.

Enter Emmy-award-winning actress, Marilu Henner (of “Taxi” fame) who was asked by immunotherapy manufacturer, Genentech, to act as spokesperson for the cause because of her unique experience.

When appearing on Broadway a decade and a half ago, she got a message from a former high school boyfriend, Michael Brown, who wanted to meet up again. They met for dinner and it was truly love at first sight. They, very quickly, found they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together.
“I knew after the first date that he was the one I had been looking for,” says Henner. “He was my missing chess piece”.

While on vacation two months after reconnecting, Henner noticed some blood in the toilet bowl in the hotel bathroom they shared. She asked Brown about it. It turned out it was not the first time such blood had showed up and Brown downplayed it, saying he’d seen it before and it had gone away. He was sure it would again. Henner wasn’t so sure and made him go to the doctor.

Michael’s own doctor acted like his symptoms were no big deal, even though Brown had seen such bleeding a full two years before.

That doctor told Michael to come back in five months,” recalls Henner, her voice sounding outraged even now. “I dragged him to my own doctor, who immediately diagnosed that he had both lung cancer and Stage 2-3 bladder cancer!”

Facing down her own fears (“I made some frantic bargains with God, I’ll tell you”),

Henner supported him through the entire process, going with him to doctors, asking the tough questions and taking copious notes to discuss with Brown later.

She helped him through the rocky emotional times, too.

“Michael was very depressed and particularly upset that he had involved me in this problem,” Henner remembers. “He was sorry he had called me to reconnect.”

She told him she would never be sorry about that and, ignoring his protests, dragged him “kicking and screaming” to all his medical appointments.

“I love being a nag,” she says, and demanded Brown share his fears and anger.

“Caretakers are the most underappreciated of people,” she admits, “but they are invaluable. It is up to us to have the tough, no-holds-barred conversations. We are all only as sick as our secrets and, by sharing those secrets with loved ones and letting someone help you, you will discover a new intimacy.”

After bouts of immunotherapy and the adoption of healthy new habits (cheered on by Henner), Brown’s cancers went into remission. At his six-month checkup, with no sign of the cancers having returned, Brown proposed and the two were married.

But many men diagnosed with such cancer aren’t so lucky. For the last 30 years there have been no new treatments for bladder cancer, one of the most common of all cancers, with 80,000 new cases diagnosed each year. But recently, the cancer immunotherapy TECENTRIQ was approved as a first-line treatment for people with locally advanced or metastatic urothelial carcinoma (mUC) who are not eligible for cisplatin chemotherapy, which is a standard treatment.

Bladder cancer no longer means an automatic death sentence, but early detection is vital and caretakers taking it upon themselves to bring up uncomfortable or embarrassing discussions are often the front line of getting their loved ones to a doctor for examination and early detection.

To that end, a guide on how to hold such conversations, with an introduction from Marilu Henner and Michael Brown, and perspectives from a number of other bladder cancer patients and caregivers, is published on the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network’s website, bcan.org.

Henner jumped at the chance to help other families learn to talk to each other about the new road on which they find themselves. She advises them against letting embarrassed silence win the day stressing, “Things we refuse to drag into the light become emotional bogeymen. Talk things over with your loved one. Such conversations are life-savers.”

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Kitt Walsh owns a web content company, Behind Blogs (http://www.behindblogs.com), is a regular contributor to CNN Money, a public speaker on Social Media, a book editor and ghostwriter, and freelances as a feature writer, editor and marketing consultant for magazines, newspapers and private clients around the world.