Saturday, November 06, 2010

Jill Clayburgh Dies

Actress Jill Clayburgh died yesterday.

And, while the last thing I want to do at a time like this is appear flippant, I guess my very first response to the news was that I didn't even know she was sick.

But sick she was.

Clayburgh, who was 66, apparently suffered from leukemia for more than two decades. But she did so privately. Outside of her family and, presumably, some close friends, Clayburgh's illness seems to have been unknown. Certainly it was unknown to the general public.

I know little about leukemia, actually. I mean, I know it is a blood disease, and I know it is classified as a cancer, but, while I have known quite a few people who have been diagnosed with cancer, I can only recall one person who was diagnosed with leukemia.

That was a classmate of mine in third grade.

Of course, that was many years ago, but my memory is that his illness was very aggressive, and he died within a year. Perhaps he had been treated for it longer than that, and I just didn't know. But he obviously didn't live with it for 21 years.

I realize that a lot of things have changed for the better since I was a child, and one of those things is cancer treatment.

Science hasn't reached the point where it has conquered every cancer in every conceivable form, even the most aggressive ones. It may never reach that point. But the improvements in my lifetime have been amazing.

And, possibly, Clayburgh's experience of having her life extended by the drugs that were prescribed to her is proof of that.

Then again, perhaps there is a difference between the kind of leukemia that Billy had all those years ago and the kind that Clayburgh had, and comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges.

As I say, I don't know much about leukemia, but I know a few things. For example, most of the people who are diagnosed with it are adults. Maybe it is more lethal, more aggressive in children. Maybe it is harder to treat in children.

I also see, in Clayburgh's obituaries, that she is said to have had chronic leukemia. That, too, may be a noteworthy — perhaps related — distinction. My understanding is that it is something that is almost always diagnosed in adults, rarely in children.

It's possible, I guess, that Billy was one of those exceptions, a child diagnosed with chronic leukemia, and that complicated his treatment. I was about 9 or 10 when he died, and all I knew was that he died of leukemia. No one got any more specific than that.

When I was a child, a diagnosis of cancer of any kind was a death sentence. Or at least it seemed to be. I guess there have always been those who survived a diagnosis of cancer, but there were none in my personal experience until I was older, much older.

And some of those I've known who were diagnosed with cancer have survived. I'm happy for them, but I'm not naive. We're a long way from eliminating cancer. We're closer than we were when I was a child, and we're making progress, but we're not on the brink of the single discovery that will make it possible to prevent all types of cancer from striking anyone anywhere.

Lives will continue to be lost, but those lives need not be lost in vain. Perhaps there are things medical science can learn from Clayburgh's 21–year fight with leukemia. Perhaps her death will contribute to a greater understanding. Perhaps it may one day make it possible for others to live and be cured.

Today, though, I want to remember Clayburgh's performances. "I do best with characters who are coming apart at the seams," she told the New York Times, and indeed she did. I remember two films she did in the late 1970s — "An Unmarried Woman" and "Starting Over" — that told the stories of women facing the challenges of being single in that turbulent decade when societal roles for women were constantly being redefined.

Those performances earned her back–to–back Oscar nominations.

She had many great performances in her career, and that is the legacy she leaves behind.

Rest in peace, Jill Clayburgh.