A Lesson in Living Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker Say Cancer Changed Thier Lives - for the Better

Article excerpt

SPRING of 1986 should have been the best of times for Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker. Their friend Steven Bochco had asked them to star in his new television series, a little thing called "L.A. Law" that seemed a sure bet to be the hottest show of fall.

But shortly before the couple, then married 13 years, left their home in New York to film the series pilot in Los Angeles, Eikenberry found a lump in her breast - a discovery that would change their lives in unexpected ways.

Eikenberry and Tucker will talk about their cancer experience Oct. 18 at a St. Louis fund-raiser for the AMC Cancer Research Center. After 8 1/2 years, they still recall the events of that spring vividly.

"I reached up and felt it," Eikenberry says of the lump.

"Actually, my gynecologist had already found it and scheduled me for a mammogram. But I was about to go on a little vacation, and she didn't want to spoil it for me. She just said, `I think it's time you had a mammogram.' I was 38 or 39 and I'd never had one.

"Subconsciously, I guess the mention of it made me more aware of self-examination, which I hadn't been all that good about doing. And I found it."

Time stopped.

"The `L.A. Law' thing was happening, with imminent fame and immortality," Eikenberry says wryly. "And mortality slapped me in the face."

Tucker went with her to the mammogram.

"It was scary," he says. "They asked her to wait, and then to do another one. We knew it wasn't good."

But still they thought the lump might be benign, until they went together to a New York oncologist.

"He started talking about options Jill might choose for treatment," Tucker recalls. "I said, `When will we know if it's cancer?' and he said, `Oh, it's cancer.' Just like that."

"He could tell from the mammogram that it was malignant," Eikenberry adds. "They can't always tell, but he could. He was leaning toward mastectomy, because that's what he'd done the most of. At the time, I was so frightened, I was thinking, `Anything, just get it out.' "

Numb, in a daze, she went home and spent the next few days "lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling, crying." But when she roused herself to go to a screening of a movie she'd appeared in, she ran into a young castmate who took one look at her face and asked her what was wrong.

"I hadn't intended to tell anyone, but it just spilled out," Eikenberry says. "She called over her mother, who immediately took me into the ladies' room and pulled up her blouse to show me this little scar on her breast. She'd had cancer 11 years before, and beat it.

"It was the first time it occurred to me I might not die. I hadn't known anyone who'd had cancer and survived. And not only might I live, I might not even have to lose a breast.

"It was a wonderful moment." A dear friend - ironically, one who is now battling breast cancer herself - urged Eikenberry to seek a second opinion.

"The second doctor was less conservative, very attuned to what was happening in thinking about breast cancer treatment," Eikenberry says. "He told me I was the perfect candidate for a lumpectomy."

After her diagnosis, Eikenberry and Tucker went to Los Angeles to do the "L.A. Law" pilot, in which they played colleagues-turned-lovers Ann Kelsey and Stuart Markowitz.

Then they returned to New York, where Eikenberry underwent surgery to have the malignancy removed.

Eikenberry describes her cancer as "a 1-centimeter-long estroge-positive tumor in the upper right quadrant - an operable, contained, fairly small tumor in a fairly small breast." All those things, she notes, are good.

Eleven lymph nodes were also removed, and none showed cancer. Her prescription: radiation treatments, not chemotherapy.

"Two or three years later, with the same diagnosis, I probably would have had chemotherapy," she says. …