Blow-by-blow account of cancer

New generation of patients will find inspiration in this courageous account of coping with the disease.

By MORTON I. TEICHER
August 31, 2009 17:56
4 minute read.

 
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It's Always Something
By Gilda Radner
Simon and Schuster
286 pp.,
$14



Originally published in 1989, Gilda Radner's autobiographical account of living - and dying - with ovarian cancer has been reprinted with a new introduction by Alan Zweibel, her collaborator in writing Saturday Night Live. Also added to this 20th anniversary edition is a resource guide for cancer patients and their families.



The book is basically a frank, blow-by-blow description of Radner's treatment from the time of her diagnosis in 1986 until she died in 1989. Some of the material is inspiring; some is harrowing. Woven into the story are details of Radner's life. The two biographical elements that stand out are her marriage to actor Gene Wilder and her success as a television star.



Radner grew up in Detroit but spent the winter months in Miami Beach. Her chopped-up school attendance stopped when she entered a private school in Detroit, where she completed high school before enrolling in the University of Michigan. She spent time as an acting student but failed to graduate after six years. In 1969, caught up in the antiwar movement and involved with a Canadian sculptor, she moved to Toronto.



The romance broke up, but Radner remained in Toronto where she became a professional actress, establishing herself as a comedienne. Her success led her to New York, originally with the National Lampoon Show, then with the Not Ready for Prime Time Players and, eventually, with Saturday Night Live.



After a failed marriage to a musician, Radner was divorced and wed Gene Wilder in 1984. She poignantly describes his devotion to her through the tribulations of her illness.



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Others involved with her - doctors, nurses, therapists - also suffered with her as she experienced the rigors of her treatment.



Not until the fourth chapter of her book does Radner identify herself as a Jew.



Shortly thereafter, she uses the Yiddish word "tchotchkes," and then goes on to identify her father as "very active in Jewish affairs" and listed in Who's Who in American Jewry. One of the pictures she includes shows her attending her brother's bar mitzva. Later, Radner says she "was brought up Jewish, went to Sunday school, learned Hebrew." However, Radner makes no reference to Judaism or Jewish sources as she copes with the dire consequences of her cancer diagnosis.



Instead of any religious influence on her capacity to deal with cancer, Radner turned to both esoteric and standardized approaches, including macrobiotics, surgery and new drugs.



In painful detail, she describes her chemotherapy, including the before and after procedures as well as her reactions. She also sets forth the burdens of her illness and her treatment on her family and friends. The sense of humor that characterized her performances on stage and TV never deserts her, making it possible for readers to follow what is essentially a tragic story.



An important source of emotional support for Radner was The Wellness Community in which cancer patients shared their stories with each other. Her experiences led her to organize Gilda's Club, where people with cancer as well as their families meet to encourage and sustain each other. This has become a national network of meeting places that help patients to live with cancer.



The development of this program and the principles that guide its functioning are explained in a useful appendix to this new edition of It's Always Something, along with a Resource Guide that lists organizations and readings for people with cancer.



These two additions to Radner's original book are extremely valuable, providing additional justification for reprinting Radner's memoir. A new generation of cancer patients and their relatives who benefit from treatments discovered since her death 20 years ago will find inspiration in this courageous account of coping with cancer.



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