She fought lung cancer and won
by Allan Richter
As a smoker from her mid-teens into her twenties, actress Stefanie Powers knew she was at risk. So, about five years ago, she began getting lung scans. Doctors eventually started monitoring a spot that had appeared on one of her lungs. In later, more precise scans, the spot that doctors were observing had changed. Doctors here and abroad confirmed a lung cancer diagnosis. As Powers was coping with the disease, she was caring for her ailing mother, Julie. Last year, one month after her 96-year-old mother died, part of Powers’ lung was removed. The surgery was successful, but the twin challenges of losing her mother and facing cancer prompted some deep introspection.
“It was those two events coming so quickly, one upon the other, that really caused me to stop and reflect and recount when life was a little bit different not that long ago, and how diametrically opposite life has become to the world I grew up in,” Powers says. Because “people seem to be floundering to find” those simpler, healthier times again, Powers says, the 67-year-old actress—known to television audiences as half of the married detective duo in the 1980s drama “Hart to Hart”—is putting her reflections into a book, One From the Hart (Simon & Schuster), due in the fall.
The auburn-haired, Emmy-nominated actress and world traveler (who speaks seven languages) has much to tell beyond her most public vocation. For Powers, the early detection responsible for her victory over lung cancer is a function of a firm belief in taking personal responsibility. That theme extends not just to her health, but to her environmental activism on behalf of wildlife. She holds dual residency, in the United States and Kenya, the latter for her work on behalf of the William Holden Wildlife Foundation, which she founded to honor the late actor.
Among her health credentials are “Stefanie Powers’ Broadway Workout,” set to show tunes, and books on some of her favorite physical pastimes—Pilates, karate and, showing a side of the horse advocate in her, polo. But she sees emotional and psychological components to these activities, too. “I think there is a commonality about all of these disciplines that allows me to approach whatever physical activity I do from a more internal point of view then an external one,” she says.
Powers attributes her mother’s longevity to “tenacity, forward thinking and good genes.” Asked to elaborate, she adds, “We all experience adversity and experience rejection, and life is never easy for anybody. If you let life defeat you, you won’t get out of bed in the morning so you have to press on. ‘Press on’ was her motto.”
Powers herself is not a mother, but motherhood is on her mind as she promotes her new television movie, “Meet My Mom,” set to premiere May 8 on the Hallmark Channel. Powers plays the mother of a single mom who is wrestling with commitment to the soldier she is dating. Powers spoke with us in New York about her mother, personal accountability and her successful fight with lung cancer.
Energy Times: Your history as a smoker prompted you to get tested for lung cancer. But you also have concerns about the environment.
Stefanie Powers: Even people who never smoke get lung cancer. It is the single most common form of cancer. I have air filters in my house, and I think I keep a very clean house. But when I clean those air filters on average of every other day, they’re black. There is filthy black gunk on those ionized bars. If that’s what is in the air, what is it doing to my lungs?
We’re so cavalier about turning our backs on demands from our government, who are mostly in the business of politics instead of governing, to clean the air. What more do we need to prove that what we’re inhaling is toxic to us? It was once very easy to say lung cancer kills all those people who smoke. It was easy to point the finger. Not anymore. We have to take responsibility, and part of that is demanding of our government, local, state and federal, that they enforce reforms, that police give tickets for automobiles that are spewing out rubbish from their mufflers and get them off the street. I mean we vote on all this stuff but nothing ever happens. It’s never enforced; oversights are never enforced.
ET: Even though you affix blame to the government, you are a strong believer in personal responsibility. Tell me more about that.
SP: I am a perfect example of early detection. And no one cares more about your health than you
do—no doctor, no nurse, no one. We must learn as much as we can about ourselves, our bodies, the options for health, what is available to us. It is no longer an excuse to say, “I didn’t know.” It’s all there to find out, and all you need is to get somebody to teach you how to use the Internet. Everything is there. It’s time to take on personal responsibility. It is our responsibility to look after ourselves as much as it is anybody’s.
If you’re overweight, it’s not my responsibility to look after you. But you do become a liability to me if you’re not healthy because you raise my medical costs. So to a certain extent we are our brother’s keeper, but to another extent we have to cut the cord and say, “Get your act together.” You’re the only one who can do it. It’s not anybody else’s job but yours, and the more you understand about it, the better equipped you’ll be, the more responsible of a citizen you’ll be, and you won’t be a victim. And you won’t be dragging anyone else down.
ET: Did your vegetarian diet stem from your strong love of animals or was that a health consideration?
SP: It began for health, though I suppose it’s a combination of things. I was never a great meat eater but one trip to a slaughterhouse will tell you, if you are what you eat you don’t want to become that. There has not been any reform to slaughtering methods for far too many years.
There can be humane, instant slaughtering methods but they are not a priority to impose. Half the population thinks that meat comes in a package. I didn’t like the way it was raised and I didn’t like the way it was killed, and that’s what changed my life and my choices.
ET: What is a typical day’s meal?
SP: I’m obviously heavy on fruits and vegetables. I like brown rice very much. For four years I was on macrobiotics but it became very difficult to travel and maintain; this was in the 1960s. I’d go on location for filming with a footlocker full of food and a little mini-kitchen that I would take with me and cook in the bathroom of the hotel room. It was very difficult and when I reluctantly gave up macrobiotics for a more well-rounded diet, or at least an easier-to-maintain diet, I knew I would never feel quite as good. But I knew I had to adapt.
Because I travel so much I have to look at what’s available to me. Whenever I can find an Indian restaurant, that’s my favorite food because I think vegetarianism has existed in India for well over a thousand years. They all manage to survive terribly well. When I look at their full range of lentils and all their mixing of herbs and vegetables and complex carbohydrates, I think they found the answer. Not that I’m a very good cook of Indian food, but I certainly enjoy going to a good Indian restaurant.
ET: What’s your favorite recipe?
SP: Almost anything stir-fried I think is probably the best. I use a lot of amino acids, soya products for flavor. It’s brilliant; it really adds a wonderful taste to everything. It comes from the soya bean and it’s filled with amino acids. I use kind of a tahini soya sauce available at most health food stores. Of course tofu is a great additive. I cook with tofu a lot as a kind of filler and accent. If it’s marinated and dry, it can bring a lot of nice flavors to an awful lot of vegetables and salads.
ET: Do you take supplements?
SP: I take a lot of supplements. Even when it was not as popular and in the mainstream when I was growing up we took lots of supplements at home. I take fish oil, the B complex, C, A, D and E vitamins. It’s a full spectrum
ET: One of your books is about Pilates. Tell me about your attraction to this discipline.
SP: The Pilates book was about the preliminaries to Pilates through positioning and alignment. I think it had very clear explanations that I always thought were lacking in other books on Pilates. The approach to Pilates that I was exposed to when I first encountered Pilates in New York in the 1960s was that it was used as therapy for doctors who had injured themselves or were getting back in shape. It creates a kind of inner strength or, as I like to say, strength from the inside out.
ET: In your book, you say you incorporated traditional Pilates with innovative movement patterns. What was your particular spin on it?
SP: That was derived from my sort of guru in Pilates, Ron Fletcher, who was a dancer with Martha Graham. He was one of the principals involved with getting Joseph Pilates from Europe to America in the early forties, because Martha Graham had been exposed to him in Europe in England. She was one of his great proponents. That’s why it became something that dancers knew about and nobody else knew about because of its therapeutic aspects. He was in fact a therapist.
If you approach Pilates from an exercise or a physical fitness point of view, it’s kind of mentally the wrong philosophy. There are as many forms of yoga as there are people who do yoga, I’m sure. But the principle of yoga is to find a way of controlling the body so that the body could be calmed and quiet and you could ascend to the metaphysical aspect of yogism. That was the purpose of it. You certainly can use it as physical fitness but I don’t find it as effective.
ET: You’re deeply involved in wildlife conservation. When you look at the different organizations whose charter is wildlife protection, what would you say, in a broad sense, has been accomplished and what still needs to be done?
SP: When you work in wildlife conservation you never look at anything having been accomplished. It’s a constant battle. You can never rest on your laurels. Once you climb a hill all you see are the rest of the hills to be climbed. Everybody who does work in this field understands that. For example, as much as has been done to make people aware of the critical condition elephants are faced with, the United Nations is still being pressured to rescind the restriction on the ivory trade. And they might vote on that very shortly because last week they rescinded the restriction on the hunting of whales because of pressure from Japan. Also, they did not vote on any positive measures to help the polar bears.
Seven hundred wolves were shot last month in Alaska. That is a disaster for the natural balance. So it is constant. All you have to do is put your finger on a location in the world and you would find some environmental crisis, which includes wildlife because you’re going to find its habitat in peril and therefore the species in peril.
ET: And that triggers other problems.
SP: Of course it does; it’s all related. To think that it’s an isolated incident half a world away is just our own lack of understanding of how this planet works. We all have a responsibility.
ET: You speak seven languages and are an author. What advice could you give about keeping the mind sharp and aging gracefully?
SP: You have to keep challenging yourself. Challenge keeps you on your toes. I think challenging yourself as much as possible, both mentally and physically, is an active part of my life. Once you arrive at the realization of your capacity you can then push forward to the next level. Nothing is ever done. There is always room for improvement.
ET: What message should women take away after seeing “Meet My Mom,” your upcoming television film?
SP: Within the context of this story there is a subliminal message that is relevant to young women who are in their thirties, who have gone through this hot period of the last 10 years where there was so much emphasis on being out there, getting involved with people as quickly as possible and getting pregnant. Over the last generation the birth explosion has been extraordinary. Many of those relationships have ended in divorce. There are a lot of single mothers who are now in their thirties.
And they’re going through, as one would, the reexamination of all their attachments and involvements, plus the reestablishment of themselves in the workplace. It’s a tremendous transition and a huge realization that the realities of life are pretty cruel. I think that’s what we are encountering in this story.
Like the mother [in “Meet My Mom”] one can only be supportive and be there as most good mother-daughter relationships are, like the one I had with mine. We were best friends. She was a disciplinarian when she needed to be when I was growing up and taught me well, but as an adult the transition was made from mother/overseer to mother/best confidant. That is a happy transition. I don’t think it should start out that you’re best friends with your children. Somebody has to be the parent when they’re in their formative years.
ET: Do you think that was what enabled your relationship with your mother to develop into a strong friendship?
SP: I think that is the best way, because there has to be some stable base and some authority figure. That parents assume this notion that they can raise children without any discipline is I think a definite flaw in the way parenting has gone on in the last couple of generations. It has produced some people who feel that the world is centered around them, and when they are then greeted with the brave reality that nobody really cares about them but themselves it’s a hard lesson for them to learn later on. It’s better if they learn it early.