In March 2010, Andy Whitfield was preparing to shoot the second season of the television series "Spartacus" when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Welsh born actor was told that, given his age and fitness, with treatment, there was every hope for a full recovery. He immediately began chemotherapy and six weeks after the last session, a scan revealed the cancer was gone.
But not for long.
That September, a routine physical showed a small inflamed lymph node, and a biopsy confirmed that the cancer had returned. This time the prognosis was not so optimistic. The treatment was an aggressive, debilitating form of chemotherapy. Radiotherapy sessions followed which left the once buff actor so weak he couldn’t walk. Whitfield died last September at the age of 39, leaving behind his devoted wife Vashti and two children, Jesse, 7 and Indigo, 4.
When Whitfield was first diagnosed, he agreed to take part in a documentary chronicling his journey. The documentary "Be Here Now" has only partially been finished, and the filmmakers and Vashti Whitfield have been trying to raise the funds to finish Andy’s story. Vashti spoke to FOX411 about the her husband's illness and the film project.
FOX411: Why did Andy do this documentary?
Vashti Whitfield: He thought he had conquered cancer and then it came back and he couldn’t understand why it had come back, so he wanted to do something with it and share his journey in the hopes that it would give it more purpose. That hopefully it might be of use to someone going through the same process.
You have to remember when he got cancer again we weren’t of the mindset that he was dying. We went into it with every possibility that he would come out. It was very late in the day that that wasn’t evident. I’m quite astounded by people saying, ‘Why have you done this? Why didn’t you want it more private?’ Andy and I were very much of the philosophy that if you can share what’s going on for you and improve the quality of other people’s lives, then that’s what you do, and until it was absolutely necessary not to film for health reasons, or we weren’t allowed, then we filmed.
"I brought in the kids and lifted them up and he said to them, ‘My body doesn’t work anymore. A bit like a butterfly that has a broken wing'"
- Vashti Whitfield
FOX411: Explain the title "Be Here Now."
VW: The day before he was to go for his insurance testing before filming Season 2 [of 'Spartacus'] he and I were at our favorite restaurant in New Zealand, and he was feeling a little nervous about what the results would be. He said, ‘I’ve always wanted to get a tattoo,’ and because of treatment, he hadn’t been able to, and I said, ‘I’ve been thinking about getting a tattoo,’ so went and got ‘Be Here Now’ with the context that whatever the outcome, all you have is now. Be here now in the present and that’s all you can do really on a day to day basis.
FOX411: How did he say goodbye to your children?
VW: He was very incoherent. It was the last couple of days of his life, so he was in and out of lucidity. I said to him, ‘This is where you have to say goodbye to the kids and you need them to know that you’re not coming back.’ So I brought in the kids and lifted them up and he said to them, ‘My body doesn’t work anymore. A bit like a butterfly that has a broken wing and can’t fly anymore and it was time for him to go and whenever they see a butterfly that will be him. And now he had to go to sleep, and when he went to sleep his body wouldn’t work anymore, and the next time they saw him, he’d be a butterfly flapping around.’
FOX411: How are you doing?
VW: I’m actually thriving. I’m a firm believer that when you’ve had something extraordinary like this happen, you do something with it. You have the opportunity to live so you get the hell on with it. That’s not to say you don’t have down days. Giving interviews, I’m having to go through a lot of stuff I’ve put behind me, so that’s quite challenging just because it’s like opening an old wound. Other than that it’s given my life even more purpose. I’m absolutely obligated to my little monkeys and to Andy to stick a rocket up my arse and do something meaningful with my life and continue Andy’s legacy.
FOX411: Did he go through the stages of dying?
VW: He certainly went through the stages of wanting to fight it, but then when you realize you can’t walk anymore, you’re not okay, and you have to come to terms with it and it’s no longer a battle and you suddenly become at peace with going ,and I think before he went he found a place that he was okay to say, ‘I’m done.’
FOX411: He was fortunate to have you by his side the whole way including when he passed.
VW: Death is very important. You need to see someone out in a very beautiful way. Being in those moments with the body of the man who is the father of my children and my best friend and holding this body, but there’s no sign of the man in it anymore, in effect what you’re doing is seeing his body out. For me, I saw Andy exit the building a few days before. It’s a very interesting process, and a beautiful one, and a heartbreaking one.