When I picked up the phone to interview Jeanne Tripplehorn about her pivotal role in Five — Lifetime’s star-saturated film anthology that is the showpiece of its long-running “Stop Breast Cancer For Life” initiative — it was Tripplehorn who began asking questions.
“They sent me some information,” she said of the PR folks at Lifetime who connected us. “You are a breast cancer survivor?”
I told her I am.
“Congratulations!” said the actress, who plays Pearl, an oncologist whose mother’s death inspired her to specialize in breast cancer — and who is the one character that ties all five films together. “You had a lumpectomy and then radiation? Or did you do chemo?”
I explained my course of treatment that launched almost exactly one year prior — six months of FEC chemotherapy, successful lumpectomy, six weeks of daily radiation, six months of Herceptin infusions that will end in November, Tamoxifen by mouth for the next five years. And several lifetimes’ worth of hope and prayer.
“What stage were you?” she wanted to know next. Stage II invasive ductal carcinoma, Grade 3 tumor that came out of nowhere, HER2/neu gene amplification. An aggressive cancer I found myself on the morning of my birthday, six weeks before my scheduled mammogram and miraculously early in the progression of the disease.
“Wow,” she said. “And how old were you?” Forty-five to the day.
“Yeah, this is when it starts,” sighed Tripplehorn, who admits she went for a much-overdue mammogram while filming Five. Then she shared her own breast cancer story. “It runs in my family. My grandmother had it, and my aunt — who actually lives with me now — she went through it, I guess, eight years ago now. So this project is clearly very near and dear to me.”
Thus, despite the magnitude of said project, celebrity and reporter simply became two women swapping information, concern and war stories about a disease so prevalent that one in every eight women will face it in her lifetime. One in 35 will die.
It’s also the spirit of womanhood that drove the creation of Five, a collection of yes, five emotional, frequently funny and complexly interwoven short films about women dealing not just with the physical effects of breast cancer and its myriad treatments, but also a part of the diagnosis often left undiscussed — how such a deeply personal disease affects our sense of self, how we relate to others and how others relate to us.
The brainchild of superstar actress Jennifer Aniston, her producer pals Kristin Hahn (The Departed) and Marta Kauffman (Friends), and Mission: Impossible franchise producer Paula Wagner, the anthology is bolstered by impactful female directors including first-timer Aniston, Demi Moore — who co-produced HBO’s Emmy-nominated 1996 abortion anthology If These Walls Could Talk — plus singer Alicia Keys and veteran directors Patty Jenkins (Monster, The Killing) and Penelope Spheeris (Wayne’s World). Emmy winner Patricia Clarkson (personally invited by Aniston to star in her segment, “Mia”), Sin City’s Rosario Dawson, How I Met Your Mother’s Lyndsy Fonesca, Tripplehorn and her Big Love costar Ginnifer Goodwin star as the women coping with the disease.
Whether you’ve experienced breast cancer or not, the result is a welcome island of honesty in a television landscape that largely ignores cancer’s alarming prevalence or reduces cancer-stricken characters to stereotypical or fantastical characters. (Sorry, Walter White of Breaking Bad fame. I love you deeply, but you really should see your doctor more often.)
Tripplehorn explained that lead writer Kauffman took cues from The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “biography” of cancer whose one constant in the staggering evolution of the disease and its treatments is the determination and humanity of the doctors and patients joined in the fight. Rather than miring themselves in the confounding and ever-changing realm of breast cancer treatment, Kauffman and her team focused on the personal, capturing how the women and their relationships transform. The philosophy also allowed all involved to infuse the stories and the set with a steady stream of humor, which most patients and their loved ones know is critical to surviving the surreal, sudden life change of a cancer diagnosis.
“A lot of times we try — in not a light-handed way and not just to entertain — but we really didn’t want to be so down and dramatic,” Tripplehorn explains. “We try to find the humor in the situation or show people trying to find the humor in it as a coping mechanism.”
Which, in my case, entailed such things as gifting family members with clumps of my hair as it fell out. Naming my “girls” Lola (the problem-child left one) and Randolph (the innocent bystander to the right named after Randolph Mantooth, who played brave paramedic Johnny Gage on Emergency!) so that I didn’t have to keep writing “breasts” in the blog I kept up for friends and family. And, perhaps most memorably, experiencing the splendor that is the last phase of a bone scan, which the technician optimistically (and only half-correctly) described as a “nice warm feeling — like peeing your pants.”
Ultimately, says Tripplehorn, what the film is about is hope, and finding meaning in your life post-diagnosis, however long that life may be.
“Everybody has a different experience — and it’s not always a death sentence,” she says. “I think more than ever, it’s not always a death sentence. My aunt, she just had a mammogram last week and she’s fine, she’s still in the clear and it’s been eight or nine years. But how she deals with this … how you deal with it … how other people deal with it — it’s a fascinating story. And there are so many of them.”
Five premieres on Lifetime October 10 at 8pm
The haunting song you hear in the film’s preview clips is Leona Lewis’ “Happy”