Speaking to a few hundred doctors, breast cancer patients and fellow survivors Monday in Baldwin, actress Cynthia Nixon said she’s still struggling to come to terms with the fact that her mother lost her battle with breast cancer earlier this year.
Nixon, 47, was able to beat her early stage breast cancer, which doctors caught in 2006 through a routine mammogram, by undergoing radiation and a lumpectomy, but she watched her mother, Anne Knoll Nixon, fight the disease on-and-off for nearly 35 years.
As the guest speaker at the third annual Long Island Breast Cancer Summit, Nixon chose to share the lessons she’s learned from her mother’s life and death. When her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer for the third time nearly three years ago, Nixon said she had gone years without getting a mammogram and the cancer was already at Stage 4.
Still, Nixon said she had a solid good year with her mother before her condition worsened, which she attributes to finding a doctor that was able to treat the disease with “a sprinkling of chemo.”
“She got to see my wife and I get married, she got to visit our beautiful new home and most importantly to me, she really got to know my youngest,” she said referring to her son, Max, who was almost 2 when Knoll Nixon passed on Jan. 19 at the age of 82.
In her final days, knowing that she was dying, Knoll Nixon refused to be catheterized or undergo invasive tests, Nixon said. Just as she had questioned doctors who wanted to completely remove her right breast when she was first diagnosed in 1979, and instead opted for a lumpectomy, Knoll Nixon wanted to have a say in how she died, Nixon explained.
Nixon applauded the way her mother handled her cancer, particularly her ability to choose doctors who shared her outlook on the world.
“They let her in on what their expertise told them, but they didn’t try to push her around,” she said.
By sharing her mother’s story, Nixon said she hopes others understand the importance of early detection, regular mammograms and being “active participants” in their treatment.
Dr. Roger Simpson, founder of the Long Island Breast Cancer Summit, said this was the exact message he wanted to convey when he invited Nixon to speak at the event, where he also presented her with a lifetime advocacy award.
While answering questions from the crowd gathered at the Coral House in Baldwin, Nixon did receive some criticism from a woman in the crowd, who told the "Sex and the City" star that discussing her mother’s death with cancer patients and survivors was too upsetting and not a message of hope. (The critic also told Nixon that she should not have referenced her same-sex marriage in the speech.)
Many members of the audience quickly came to Nixon’s defense, including Dr. Virginia Maurer, a breast cancer surgeon, who told Nixon that she found her speech to be very positive. Maurer said when speaking to young patients who have just been diagnosed, she often finds that talking to them about women who have survived decades with the disease brings them comfort.
Kathy Pellechia, 53, of Bellmore, who has Stage 1A breast cancer and said she will be going for her second round of chemotherapy Wednesday, said it was comforting to hear that Nixon’s mother lived almost 35 years past her initial diagnosis.
“Thirty-five years,” she said. “I don’t know if I’m going to last two.”
Pellechia said she also appreciated Nixon’s advice about not settling when it comes to choosing a doctor and treatment plan.
“She showed that it’s worth shopping around,” she said. “Have a voice and in the end, die with dignity.”