Lauren Levian and husband Henry Darrow
One day in 1977, actress Lauren Levian rolled out of bed, threw on a sweatsuit, chugged a cup of coffee and went to audition for the part of Lizzie in The Rainmaker. “Lizzie is always complaining about being plain and people are always calling her plain. I looked quite right for the part because I looked awful!”
She knew that the star of the show, the man playing Starbuck, was a “name” actor and that he would decide who played opposite him as Lizzie, but that was all she knew. When she walked in, the play’s director introduced her to the star, a tall man in a black outfit, saying, “Lauren, I want you to meet Henry Darrow.”
Levian – not a big television-watcher to begin with – was attending college in the sixties and early seventies and too busy to watch TV. She had never seen The High Chaparral or heard of Darrow, but says, “I didn’t know who he was, but I knew he was really something! He walked up and gave me this big double-dimple smile. That perked me up and I thought, ‘Whoa! I’m the only woman in the play and I’m going to be with this hottie!’”
Part of her audition included a scene with a kiss between Lizzie and Starbuck. At that time, Levian’s teeth crossed in the front, reminding Darrow of screen legend Gene Tierney’s cute overbite. Unfortunately, when they kissed Darrow’s lip got caught in Levian’s cute overbite. When he pulled away, blood spurted everywhere. “How could he resist me after that?” she jokes.
He couldn’t and calls her “the best thing that ever happened to me”. They married in 1982. After years of living and performing in California, they moved to Wilmington, North Carolina in 2002. They share their lives with a number of friends and enjoy being part of the vibrant local arts community. Darrow keeps his hand in acting while Levian devotes her energies to their real-estate business. Their marriage has had its ups and downs, but the love, appreciation, devotion and sense of humor in their relationship is obvious and profound. Says Darrow, “Without her, I would be devastated.” And by the end of 2008, the possibility of an unhappy future without her weighed on his mind.
A routine mammogram showed suspicious cells in her left breast and this was confirmed by a follow-up mammogram. Levian scheduled a tissue biopsy to be certain. “I had it done on New Years’ Eve, December 31st, just to show you how exciting my social life is,” she recalls with a laugh.
Lauren Levian and husband Henry Darrow
The biopsy turned up mostly pre-cancerous cells, however there were a few cancerous cells. She says, “I couldn’t help but feel lucky and positive. If they hadn’t seen something on the mammogram, it could have just stayed there and developed. It was what is called ‘ductile’. It was not invasive and was basically at Stage Zero.”
Next, she had to choose the treatment — chemotherapy, radiation or mastectomy. To be on the safe side, she chose to have a mastectomy. Nearly a year after her initial mammogram, Levian is cancer-free. Throughout it all, including five surgeries, Darrow marveled at her upbeat attitude.
“It was harder on Henry than on me,” she says. “He couldn’t fix it and for men, fixing things is a way to show love. I wasn’t scared because I could feel what was going on inside me and I just knew I would be okay. I could feel some control. But Henry didn’t have any control and it’s difficult for men when they feel helpless.”
Still, her cancer brought them closer together. “We’ve always been close and had a lot of fun together, but it made me realize how important our relationship was for him and for me. It made us focus on how much we love each other and really appreciate each other.” She has also become much more conscious of her friends and making time to get together socially. “I’ve always been a work-oriented person and the cancer made me realize maybe that shouldn’t be the priority. The same things that made me grumpy before still make me grumpy, but I feel particularly lucky. I just look forward to things – to the holidays, to spending time with Henry and with my friends.”
Feeling lucky and accentuating the positive contribute to an optimistic attitude that Lauren Levian believes is a foremost weapon in the cancer survivor’s arsenal. “Having a good mental attitude is absolutely key! I’m probably this oblivious Pollyanna, but I just knew I would be fine,” she says. Although she wasn’t pleased with the way she looked in the mirror, it didn’t get her down. “It seems weird to say, but I thought of the way I looked with no breast and a messed-up left side as temporary. I thought okay, I’ll fix this eventually.” Although infections initially delayed reconstruction, Levian is satisfied with the results.
She isn’t satisfied that unlike her, low-income women in the Wilmington area don’t have access to mammograms. That lack of early screening is deadly. She notes, “If you catch breast cancer early enough, it’s very, very survivable. It’s so important to get mammograms, but the mammogram program for poor women was discontinued due to lack of funding.” Levian wondered how to help, then her husband brought a valuable new friend into her life.
While filming the western legends installment for the PBS series “Pioneers in Television”, Henry Darrow mentioned to producer Gail Calloway that his wife had breast cancer. It turned out that Calloway also had breast cancer and was then going through treatment. In no time, Levian and Calloway were fast friends discussing how to make educational materials and cancer screening available to low-income women.
One day, Levian joked that they should do a fundraising calendar. To her surprise, Calloway seriously thought it was a good idea. The two women set up a non-profit organization, The TaTa’s Sisterhood of the Cape Fear (Wilmington is in the Cape Fear region) for networking and breast cancer support. Then they recruited Alison Breiner, one of the premier photographers in the area, to shoot photos for the calendar.
Ready in the fall 2010, the calendar will be artistically rendered semi-nude photos of breast cancer survivors and will celebrate the beauty of women of all ages and shapes. Proceeds from calendar sales will be donated to Cape Fear area charities providing direct care to people with cancer, such as education materials, cancer screening and medical transportation for low-income people.
Lauren Levian stresses, “It’s important not to become your disease. My illness doesn’t define who I am.” Instead, her upbeat personality and big heart defined her illness, turning it into something constructive for herself, those who love her and her community.
For more information about the TaTa’s Sisterhood, to see an example of Alison Breiner’s photographs for the calendar or to order a calendar, please visit the TaTa’s Facebook page.
© 2010 Jan Pippins
Editor’s note: The Wilmington Star News carried this article about Lauren and the TaTa’s Sisterhood.