Pam Grier's Heartbreaking Description Of Her Time In Cancer Treatment

As 1970s cinema shifted toward complex female roles, the name Pam Grier stood out, a bold statement set to the tune of superstardom. Grier was a little "Coffy," a bit campy, and a whole lot of "Foxy Brown" (via IMDb). Her big-screen portrayal of vigilante characters added a layer of convolution and mystery to African American female celebrity, offsetting the stereotypical roles of prior decades.

To that end, Grier was an icon for powerful women in film, among the first to be seen on a commercial level. She was the picture-perfect emblem of the term "tough." Her clever combination of martial arts and seductive allure packed theaters. Many attribute the actress with setting the stage for forthcoming pistol-packing, high-octane film females to follow. But most are unaware of the fact that in the years surrounding her most famous Hollywood roles, the original Blaxploitation film star was engaged in something else entirely behind the scenes: treatment for stage four cervical cancer (per The Guardian).

The devastating diagnosis

It was 1988 and the star was at the pinnacle of popular culture. After being acknowledged as one of the first female action celebrities, Grier was poised to take over the world, or at least look the part on the big screen. But what began as a routine checkup turned into a devastating diagnosis of stage four cervical cancer, according to The Guardian.

The resilient actress, devoted to healthful living with a body-conscious dietary and exercise routine, was given 18 months to live. In a candid interview, the "Foxy Brown" actress described the moment the pathologist delivered the grave news, along with some medical literature, a proposed treatment plan, and instructions to put together her will. "I went home to ponder this two-inch-thick folder [of information] they give you," she said. Survivornet reports that even in this grim moment, Grier was hopeful and cooperative, delving headfirst into an aggressive series of treatments that included chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.

A grueling and delayed treatment

One thing about a cancer diagnosis is that no matter how far along the disease is, the instinct naturally sets in to have it immediately removed upon discovery. Yet many cancer patients, including Grier, are forced to delay operations and treatments, circumstances that can be painful and frustrating (via The Guardian).

Due to previous surgeries and physical trauma, the actress was forced to wait with baited breath for six full weeks before treatment could even begin. After this, however, her doctor put together a treatment plan so aggressive that it would eventually send her into a 30-plus year remission. Black Doctor reports that the treatment combined Eastern and Western medical techniques, effectively delivering a one-two punch to the abnormal cells. Grier endured rigorous rounds of chemotherapy followed up by herbs, tinctures, and yoga routines. For this reason, the star has described her treatment as being environmentally-based and ongoing, a lifelong commitment to health.

Cancer became like a full-time job

The word "treatment" doesn't even begin to describe a cancer patient's immersive experience of going from an autonomously functioning human being to a person in a perpetual state of reliance. Cancer routines are just that: routines. They require almost the entirety of a person's reserves of time and energy. The patient cycles from one hospital room to the next, being poked, prodded, severed, and literally poisoned.

Grier described the constant tether to a chemotherapy infusion pump in a way that many cancer patients can relate to, stating it was like cancer had become her "full-time job" (per The Guardian). Meanwhile, her actual job, as a Hollywood film star, was taking a backseat to this new, unwanted role. According to Black Doctor, her time away from the limelight did also have a positive effect, inspiring her to become an advocate for other people facing life-threatening diseases. In 2011 she was awarded not one, but two honorary doctoral degrees: Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and Honorary Doctorate of Science from Langston University, the only historically black college or university in Oklahoma.

Abandonment, heartbreak, and unlikely bonds

If being a patient was a full-time job, by Grier's testimony, it had to be one of the loneliest occupations on earth (via Black Doctor). The first session of chemotherapy, undeniably the most terrifying one, the one where you feel the poisons flow through your veins for the first time, wondering how this will affect you, was a solitary experience for the actress. Her boyfriend, whom she did not name in her candid interview, abandoned her at the start. According to The Guardian, five years would pass before she'd see his face again.

Never one to waste time and tears feeling sorry for herself, Grier instead took this moment of clarity to embrace the friends who did support her, many of whom turned out to be surprises. Among them were film director Tamar Hoff, actor and martial artist Steven Seagal, and screenwriter Carl Gottlieb.

On a broader scale, Grier keenly observed that one thing cancer didn't do was discriminate. Calling the disease the "common denominator," she points out that, "People in the cancer ward come from every ethnicity, every socio-economic background."

Pam Grier, beating the odds at every turn

Throughout the 1970s, Grier could be seen on the big screen, playing one character or another who was fighting for her life. This very much reflected the circumstances she faced once the cameras stopped rolling as well. The woman behind the pistol is equally tough, having survived stage four cancer and the trauma of childhood rape, becoming an icon in spite of it all (per The Guardian).

When she reached the age of 70, Woman's World proclaimed her a pioneer, and rightly so, but there is another unique quality worth mentioning here: Grier is an odds-beater. According to Statistics Times, there are nearly 4 billion women in the world, and of them, Pam Grier was one of the first to become an action star. That's a one in nearly 4 billion — extremely long odds, but something of a norm for Grier. In 1988, she beat the odds again by becoming one of only 17% of women to effectively beat stage four cervical cancer (via The University of Kansas Cancer Center). Her decades-long remission is equally impressive.