Nora Ephron Kept Her Cancer A Secret For Six Years So She Could Continue Working In Hollywood

When Nora Ephron died last year the news that she’d been battling cancer for years came as a shock to most people, including her closest friends. She’d kept it a secret to all outside of her immediate family. This bewildered many, myself included, familiar with her career as her life’s most intimate struggles — getting old, her flabby neck, her small breasts, etc. — were often fodder for some of her more popular pieces of writing. Since then the question has lingered: Why didn’t Nora Ephron share her illness with others?

Well, now we know, thanks to a wonderful but heartbreaking essay penned by her son, Jacob Bernstein, that will be published in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine titled, “Nora Ephron’s Final Act.” Turns out, it was largely so she could continue to get work in entertainment.

At various points over the years, she considered coming clean to her friends and colleagues about her illness. But she knew the effect it could have on her career. Certainly, she could continue writing books and essays. But getting a movie made would be impossible, because no insurance company would sign off on it. Arguably, she could do a play, but bringing it to Broadway would be difficult, given that the development process takes years. Beyond that, what my mother didn’t want was to have her illness define her, turning every conversation into a series of “how are you?”s.

Additionally, there’s a passage in the essay where Bernstein details his mother finding out that her myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) — commonly known as pre-leukemia — had developed into a full-blown case of leukemia and whether or not she would undergo the horrific chemo battling it would require.

“I’m having a little health crisis.”

That’s how she put it when she called me shortly before Memorial Day weekend.

I dropped everything, got into a cab and headed up to see her at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. While I was en route, the phone rang; it was Max, who told me that Mom’s MDS had turned into leukemia. I think I already knew, even though I hadn’t asked her for specifics. For six months, Mom’s blasts — the bad guys that make it difficult for people with MDS and leukemia to produce healthy platelets and white blood cells — had been creeping back up, indicating that she was developing a resistance to her medication. Now she would need a brutal form of chemotherapy if she hoped to survive. Max and his girlfriend, Rachel, were getting on a plane from L.A.

When I arrived in her room, my mother was crying. She cried a lot that first night, and then, the next day, she cried some more because she was certain Christopher Hitchens had done no such thing, and she was devastated at the thought that she might not be as brave as him about death.

It terrified me to see her cry like that. She loved me, showered me with gifts, e-mailed or called every time I wrote something that made her proud. But even after all the weekly meals, the shared vacations, the conversations about movies and journalism and the debt ceiling and Edith Wharton, I still viewed her with a mix of awe and intimidation. It wasn’t often that I caught a glimpse of her vulnerability.

Now there she was, in her Chanel flats and her cream-colored pants and her black-and-white-striped blouse, looking so pretty and so fragile as she dabbed her eyes with a Kleenex; and I finally understood what she meant when she said she was a bird — that she wasn’t just talking about her looks but something inside as well.

As she explained it that first night, the odds of the chemo working were below 50 percent, and even if it did, it would probably not buy her more than a year and a half or so. “I want to live to be 100,” she said. “I want to see how things turn out for you and Max.” But she wasn’t sure the chemo was worth doing for such a limited upside.

I told her that I hoped she would reconsider, that a year and a half is a lot of time during which something else may emerge as a viable treatment. Still, I said I would respect whatever she wished to do, that it was her body, her life, her choice. I think this is what she needed to hear, that we wanted her to live more than anything but that she was still in control. Because within minutes, she seemed resigned to the idea that she was going to be nuked, as she put it.

Go read the whole thing when you have time. It’s a beautiful piece of writing. And here’s Bernstein talking about it on the Today Show this morning.

One last thing: as I stated when she died, Nora Ephron was and will always be one of my writing heroes. At one point during my time living in New York, one of my closest friends lived about a block away from her and I’d occasionally see her out and about when I was in that neighborhood hanging with my friend. Though I wanted to really badly, I never stopped to tell her how highly I thought of her, nor did I ever take the time to seek out her email address and send her a note. I always hoped that that universe would lead us to meeting at some point and I’d tell her then in a setting I believed would be more organic. Or at least that’s the lie I told myself.

With that said, I’ve regretted never taking the opportunity to tell her how much she meant to me since the second I learned she’d died, and I probably will regret it for the rest of my life. I am not happy about this. I tell you this simply to impart a simple bit of wisdom: get over whatever fear and/or embarrassment that may hold you back and don’t wait to tell the people who inspire you that you inspire them. That is all.