By ISLA WHITCROFT
ICONIC Sixties singer Marsha Hunt has revealed that she is battling breast cancer. And for Marsha, 59, who has a daughter, Karis, with rock star Mick Jagger, the fight was made even tougher when she was struck down by the MRSA superbug after having her mastectomy. Here, with amazing courage and candour, she tells how she is tackling this terrible disease.
BEFORE Marsha Hunt left her house for her daily dose of radiotherapy this summer, she always made sure that she was wearing a different pair of gorgeously sexy high-heeled shoes and that her makeup was nothing short of immaculate.
Those shoes and that grooming spoke volumes about the way this feisty woman, born and brought up in the tough streets of Philadelphia, was going to deal with her breast cancer.
Marsha may have had a radical mastectomy of her right breast and been struck down with MRSA. She may have lost the mass of wonderful hair that helped make her such an icon of the Sixties and brought her famous lovers such as Mick Jagger, with whom she had a daughter, Karis.
‘But was I going to curl up and cry – was I going to say “poor me” and look for pity?’ says Marsha, 59, nearly a year on from her diagnosis. ‘Not on your life. Right from the moment I was diagnosed, back in November last year, I treated the whole thing as an adventure, a journey.
‘I don’t say that in a frivolous, facile way. I mean that I had cancer, I may live or I may die from it – but right now I am alive and I am enjoying every minute of it.
And, yes, that includes lying on a bed having radiotherapy.’
Unconventional though Marsha’s attitude may be, it seems to be working well.
Having gone through the mastectomy, chemotherapy and finally her radiotherapy, Marsha radiates energy and good humour, her shaven head accentuating her wonderful cheekbones and large, expressive eyes.
Marsha felt the first signs of cancer back in June last year. She was at her writing retreat in northern France, finishing a book on Jimi Hendrix, and as she lay on her front in bed she noticed that her right breast felt strange.
‘Nothing too odd, just a bit different,’ she recalls. ‘But I noticed it, which was weird, as I am not one to regularly check breasts. I would drive myself mad with worry if I thought that every single bump was cancer. So I put this to one side and carried on with my book.
‘By September there was a tiny lump under my right nipple, but I still didn’t feel the need to get it checked out. But in November, I was back in Dublin [she lives in Ireland most of the time] and decided to see a doctor.’
She visited St Vincent’s Private Hospital, where a breast specialist examined her, sent her for a mammogram and then for an ultrasound. Three hours later, she was told that she did indeed have a four-inch lump which was probably malignant. The plan of attack was a full mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy and high doses of radiotherapy.
Typically, Marsha’s first reaction was to call her nearest and dearest around the world and tell them that she was fine and more than happy to deal with the fallout by herself.
‘My daughter Karis lives in LA and was due to give birth to her second child in just six weeks’ time, so there was no way she could come and be by my side,’ explains Marsha. ‘But she didn’t panic: she’s a good strong woman and she knows her mom. The one thing she did insist on was that I had someone there while the surgery was going on, someone who could keep her informed of how I was.
‘So I asked my great friend Kathy Gilfilin, who is married to U2’s manager Paul McGuiness, to do the honours. She was brilliant – not just during the operation, but throughout everything. She and Paul have been true, true friends to me.’ Ten days after her diagnosis, Marsha was scheduled for surgery. She could have gone back to her native America – one of her friends offered to fund her treatment there – but Marsha was adamant that she would stay in the city that has been her home for the past 10 years.
‘I had no intention of going to some clinic in America, where I would be treated like just another middle-aged black woman and hounded for details of my health insurance,’ she explains, with some vehemence. ‘But I chose Ireland for two other main reasons.
‘The first is that the man who brought me to Ireland, my ex- partner, film director Alan Gilsenan, had colon cancer in 1999. I nursed him through it and his medical team here was so brilliant that I knew I wanted the same group of people batting on my team.
‘The second was that Irish people treat illness, and even death, in a very healthy way. They don’t hide away from it and say that they are too busy to visit you.
THE Irish embrace the fact that you are ill, and it is almost a matter of honour for them to visit you and bring you gifts. I knew that in Ireland I would have a wonderful support system. And I wasn’t wrong.’ Right from the moment of diagnosis, Marsha was determined to be in charge of her illness.
After calling her family and friends, the next thing on her to- do list was to get hold of some people she knew in TV and arrange to make a documentary about her journey. Kathy, a publisher, helped her to get a book deal.
That done, another decision was that, as far as she was concerned, losing her breast was no big deal – and she wasn’t going to hide her war wounds from anyone.
‘Everybody talked about me having a reconstruction,’ she grimaces.
‘Reconstruction – as if the breast is miraculously put back to the way it was. In fact, pretty much all you get is your cleavage back; you don’t get any feeling or sensitivity.
‘When I was making the documentary, I spoke to three women who had all had reconstructions and each one of them had had problems with it afterwards. And if you think about it, it isn’t really a surprise. They take muscles from your back, skin from your thighs, fat from your stomach.
‘You had a breast removed, but the rest of you was fine. Now half your body is hacked about – and for what?
Because you worry about how other people might react to you because you only have one breast?’ Until the day of the operation, Marsha had never wavered in her belief that cancer was going to be an adventure to enjoy. Only once did her mind betray her.
‘A few days before the operation, I was driving from a friend’s house and I suddenly realised that my face was wet with tears. I hadn’t been thinking sad thoughts, and there were no other physical signs of distress such as sobbing.
I have no idea what was happening but somewhere, deep in my brain, there must have been a need for tears.’ It was a momentary lapse and her sense of humour soon reasserted itself.
A few hours before her operation, Marsha wrote a note on her breast to the surgical team, telling them to have fun, make sure they took the right breast off and drew them a flower.
WHEN she woke up after surgery and looked down at her now flat right side, neatly sealed with a six-inch scar, far from feeling grief, she felt happiness that the cancer had been taken away.
‘Are you kidding?’ she roars. ‘I didn’t mourn my breast for a minute. I was still alive, still gorgeous, still perfect. In fact, I felt better than perfect. I felt sexier without my breast, because now I had a battle scar that showed I had faced up to what people fear more than anything – and got through it.’ For 12 days after the operation, it appeared that Marsha’s positive strategy was working. She was healing up beautifully, her scar was clean and pain-free, and the only problem she faced was how to tell the dozens of visitors she received that she was sometimes weary and needed a nap rather than to chat.
But just before she was due to be discharged, two weeks before Christmas, disaster struck. That evening, as Marsha was getting out of the bath, a couple of the strips that were keeping the dressing on the wound peeled away.
As Marsha looked into the mirror, she could see that welts had formed underneath.
‘I started to panic. I thought it was some kind of allergic reaction and ran to find the night nurse.
‘The nurse was watching TV in the day room with the lights out and she didn’t seem at all bothered by me. But when I got back to the bathroom, I saw that more welts were coming up.
I tell you, the ghetto in me took over and I scorched down the corridor and told the nurse that if she didn’t get a doctor right there and then, I wouldn’t be responsible for what I was about to do.
‘The emergency doctor came and said he thought I had an infection. He wanted to start me on antibiotics there and then, but I panicked and decided that I had to wait for my surgeon to come into work the next morning.’ Mr Arnold Hill, her surgeon, agreed that she needed penicillin but the drugs seemed to have little effect. By the following day, Marsha’s scar was oozing pus and blood and she was hooked up to a drain. More doses of penicillin and then ciproxin followed, but Marsha was getting worse.
‘Instead of looking forward to going home, I suddenly felt as if I was fighting for my life,’ she says, clearly still angry about what happened. ‘I felt so sick, I spent half the time with my head hanging over the side of the bed.
I felt leaden and frightened. The scar was dreadful, all puckered and burned, and I cried and cried because things had gone so wrong.
‘Behind the tears, I was so mad that I could have broken windows. Instead, after four days I got myself and my drip down the corridor and phoned a hotel. I thought that at least a hotel wouldn’t have these infections floating around, and if I needed a doctor they would get one for me.’ In the end, her surgeon, summoned by incredulous nursing staff, came to see his patient and talked her into a compromise. She agreed to move to the nearby private Blackrock Clinic but to keep the same medical team.
‘At the Blackrock, I was finally told that I had contracted the superbug MRSA, which did scare me,’ she admits. ‘In the end, I was given zyrox – a very expensive antibiotic – and the infection started to leave my body.’
Marsha had learned her lesson. As soon as she was declared infection free, she left hospital and went to stay in a luxury villa in the grounds of a Dublin hotel.
‘I just slept and rested, kept things quiet and walked a bit,’ she explains.
‘Christmas came and went, and by January I felt well enough to embark on the next stage of my adventure. My chemotherapy was due at the end of the month and I knew full well what the side-effects would be.’ For any woman, hair loss is a painfully traumatic process – often the most distressing part of the whole experience of having breast cancer.
For Marsha, whose entire persona and identity had been built around her iconic mass of afro hair, the loss could have been doubly difficult.
Typically, however, she decided to embrace the hair loss and turn it into an excuse to have a party.
‘I knew early on that I didn’t want to go through the whole dreary process of watching my hair fall out day by day,’ she explains. ‘I wanted to take control of my battle. If anyone was going to get rid of my hair, it was going to be me.
‘Likewise, because I didn’t want close family and friends all ringing up and being sympathetic and sorry for me, I decided that I would do the deed in front of them and they could see for themselves that I’d be fine.’ In mid-January, her oncologist cleared her to fly to LA, where her daughter Karis, now 35, lives with her husband Jonathon Watson, a film director, and their children, Mazie, three, and newborn Zachary.
‘It was wonderful to see them all,’ says Marsha. ‘One of the gifts that cancer has given me is that it has brought Karis and I much closer together.
Before cancer, we were both busy people and we often didn’t get the time to speak as much as we would have wanted to. Now we are calling or emailing each other nearly every day.
‘My haircutting party was two weeks later. My brother Dennis, a journalist on USA Today, my friends from my Berkeley University days, my friends from LA and New York, and from the Middle East, and, of course, Mick, all dropped by.’ In 1970, Marsha and Mick Jagger had a love affair which resulted in Karis’s birth. When Mick refused to accept financial responsibility for his baby, Marsha fought him through the courts and won maintenance.
But that was 30 years ago and the two have long since buried the hatchet and are good friends who talk regularly and see each other from time to time.
When Karis married Jonathon three years ago in LA, Mick and Marsha jointly hosted her wedding.
‘Mick and I have a daughter and two lovely grandchildren in common, so of course he is family now,’ explains Marsha. ‘I invited him to the hair cutting party and he was happy to come.
‘We all had champagne and the women braided my hair, then Mazie started the ball rolling by cutting off the first braid. After that, everyone at that party took turns in cutting off a lock.
‘I think people were wary at first, but when they saw how happy I was – I think I actually cheered when Mazie took her bit off – they relaxed and we had a ball.
‘Everyone was very kind and said I looked gorgeous, and Mick was the least fazed of all. He was actually with me back in the Sixties when I had my afro cut off to be photographed by Norman Parkinson.’ Her hair gone, Marsha flew home to carry on with her treatment.
Although happy to indulge in homeopathy in the past for minor complaints, she knew that conventional medicine, no matter how gruelling, was her best chance of survival.
‘You have to listen to what your instincts are telling you,’ she explains.
‘I am a vegetarian, but after my operation I woke up and craved a lamb chop. So I had one. Likewise, I know that for cancer you fight the battle with every medical advancement known to man.’ Her chemotherapy lasted from January until June, two sessions every three weeks, followed by a month of radiotherapy. Her sideeffects turned out to be minimal, although she did lose what remained of her hair – her eyebrows and most of her lashes. Each morning, her pillow would be covered with the tiny dots that was the stubble from her shorn head.
But right from the start, Marsha loved her baldness. ‘It felt so liberating not having to worry about how my hair was looking, to be styling it or drying it or pinning it,’ she explains. ‘I love the way I look now. I think it suits me. I get compliments all the time, and even if my hair grows back I may keep the shaven look.
‘I really wish that more women who are bald – for whatever reason – would feel comfortable walking around without wearing a wig. We don’t notice when men are bald. Why should women have to feel that hair loss is something to be ashamed of?
ONE treatment that Marsha refused was Tamoxifen, the drug which has proven to be effective in treating hormonally receptive breast cancer.
‘I was acting on instinct again,’ she says. ‘Rightly or wrongly, I just felt that I didn’t want my hormones to be messed around with on top of everything else.’ Instead, Marsha has been lucky enough to be put on to Herceptin, the rationed breast cancer drug that is proving extremely effective at shrinking tumours but is also, as in Marsha’s case, used as a preventative measure against the return of tumours after surgery.
‘Since the end of July I have had Herceptin every three weeks intravenously and I will continue to do so until the middle of next year.
‘It is so expensive that every time I am due into the clinic, they ring up to check I am coming in before they open the drug. I know how lucky I am to be able to have it. It’s a crying shame it isn’t available to everyone.’
Medical treatment apart, Marsha is also attributing some of her recovery to the fact that she is madly, giddily in love. Early this year she made cyber contact with an old friend from university and now the two of them have progressed to exchanging sweet nothings over the internet.
Giggling like a schoolgirl, Marsha shows me her computer inbox and there, sure enough, is a stack of messages from her beau. She hopes that they will meet soon.
‘I asked my doctor if he thought being in love would help me to get better,’ she grins. ‘He looked at me as if I was mad. But I’m not so sure.’
Undefeated: Am I The Same Girl?
by Marsha Hunt(paperback, Pounds 7.99) is published by Mainstream in October.