For more than 2 1/2 years, Farrah Fawcett's battle with cancer has sparked a flurry of headlines for celebrity tabloids. But it has also stripped the actress of her ability to seek treatment while maintaining her privacy, she said in an interview.
In a three-hour conversation with The Times in August -- her only media interview after being diagnosed with anal cancer in September 2006 -- Fawcett denounced the National Enquirer for publishing leaked details about her illness, including some that she said were false. And she criticized UCLA Medical Center for failing to protect her medical records from snooping employees.
The former "Charlie's Angels" star, 62, said she set up a real-life sting operation to prove to UCLA that one of its employees was leaking her medical data to the Enquirer. She also talked about the pressure she felt from the hospital to donate money to set up a foundation in her name.
Above all, in a firm voice that betrayed no hint of her terminal illness, Fawcett described how she was deprived of the choice that most other cancer patients have: when, and even whether, to share information with family, friends or strangers.
"It's much easier to go through something and deal with it without being under a microscope," she said. "It was stressful. I was terrified of getting the chemo. It's not pleasant. And the radiation is not pleasant."
"It becomes your life," she said, sitting on the couch of her Los Angeles home, flanked by an Andy Warhol portrait of her and surrounded by sculptures she crafted. "People call, 'How are you?' 'How do you feel?' 'We're praying for you.' 'Do you still have your hair?' 'What do you feel like?' When every single call is that kind of call . . . it's all you talk about. It's all-consuming. Then, your quality of life is never the same."
Despite federal patient privacy laws, no details about a celebrity's medical condition appear to be off-limits. Celebrity websites draw millions of visitors each day, and the appetite for news about ailing stars is insatiable.
"Particularly when it's something sexy or scandalous, or on the negative side, something kind of tragic and sad, for whatever reason, the public is interested in those types of stories," said Brandy Navarre, vice president of X17 Inc., a paparazzi agency.
As for Fawcett, Navarre said, "I think it's really just an American icon and the public's love of this woman and the nostalgia and everything around her."
The tabloids, long fascinated by Fawcett, became even more enthralled after her cancer diagnosis. More than once, the Enquirer said that Fawcett was near death or had given up, including a December 2006 article headlined, "Farrah Begs: 'Let Me Die.' "
That prompted a flurry of letters from other cancer patients asking her not to give up hope because she was a role model for them.
"God, I would never say something like that," she said. "To think that people who did look up to me and felt positive because I was going through it too and yet I was strong . . . it just negated all that."
As time went on and more stories appeared, Fawcett said she grew convinced that information about her medical condition was being leaked by someone at UCLA. Whenever she sought treatment there, word always got out. Even when the tabloid reports were false, she said, they were based on a morsel of truth.
When she went in for an eye exam, for instance, "they had to say I was going blind." When she had a pap smear, "they had to say that the cancer had spread; I was having a hysterectomy.
"I actually kept saying for months and months and months, 'This is coming from [UCLA]," Fawcett said. "I was never more sure of anything in my life."
Fawcett said she realized that she needed to prove her theory. So when she found out that her cancer had returned in May 2007, she deliberately withheld the news from nearly all of her relatives and friends.
"I set it up with the doctor," she said. "I said, 'OK, you know and I know.' . . . I knew that if it came out, it was coming from UCLA."
Within days of her diagnosis, the news was in the Enquirer. "I couldn't believe how fast it came out," Fawcett said. "Maybe four days."
UCLA began an investigation and quickly found that one employee had accessed her records more often than her own doctors. Fawcett said she asked for the employee's name, but the senior UCLA official in charge of patient privacy refused, saying, "We have a responsibility to protect our employees."
Farrah Fawcett's Battle With Anal Cancer
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