Published August 23, 2013
When singer and actress Lorna Luft first received the news from her doctor that she had stage 2 breast cancer, she was in – of all places – the nail salon.
“I was having a pedicure,” Luft, the daughter of screen legend Judy Garland, told FoxNews.com about getting the call. “I was sitting in that chair, and the first thing that I said was, ‘Can you stop filing?’ Because I had just been hit in the face.”
On December 17, a few weeks prior to the phone call, Luft had found a lump in one of her breasts. Though she knew something wasn’t right, she was apprehensive about getting the lumped examined, and for a time, she ignored it. But thanks to some convincing from her best friend, she finally made an appointment.
After receiving a mammogram and a follow-up sonogram, Luft was told she needed to have a biopsy. Doctors informed her that there wasn’t much liquid surrounding the lump, which they said was not a very good sign.
However, not ready to face the reality of the situation, Luft delayed the procedure. She left for two weeks to perform in a show in London and did not have the biopsy until she returned to Los Angeles. She got the call the day after the test.
Upon hearing the news, Luft said she was so shocked, she couldn’t accept the diagnosis.
“I went back to the breast center, and they gave me all these books,” Luft said. “I threw them in the trash… It wasn’t until my manager gently took me by the shoulders, and I said, ‘I don’t want to deal with this.’ He said, ‘You have no choice.’”
Those words served as Luft’s wakeup call. Summoning the courage she needed to face the disease, she made appointments with three very skilled cancer physicians: Dr. David Agus, co-founder of Navigenics and Oncology.com, Dr. Jerrold Steiner, co-director of the Saul and Joyce Brandman Breast Center at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, and Dr. Philomena McAndrew, a medical oncologist in Beverly Hills.
“The first thing that they said to me was, ‘You’re going to be okay,’” Luft said. “And those are the words. That’s what you need to hear, and that’s what you want to hear. And then you pull yourself together and you think, ‘Okay, they said it’s going to be an interesting ride, but it’s a ride you’ve got to take.’”
After gathering information about treatment options from all three of her doctors, Luft underwent surgery to remove the tumor. She then embarked on a four-month regimen of six rounds of preventative chemotherapy. Though Luft said she didn’t expect to go through so much chemo, her doctors said it was necessary because her original tumor was so large.
“’Chemotherapy’ is a terrifying word,” Luft said. “You hear that word, and it conjures up really, really negative portraits. It’s not like that anymore. They have come leaps and bounds in the world of chemotherapy. They have it tailored for your cancer; they have it tailored for you.”
Meanwhile, Luft had to put her singing career on hold in order to focus on her health – something she hasn’t done for more than 40 years. At just 11 years old, Luft made her television debut on her mother’s series, the Judy Garland Show, and went on to star on Broadway at the young age of 19. After that, she has been no stranger to the New York stage, performing in various productions such as Grease, Little Shop of Horrors, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and more. In film, one of her most memorable performances was that of Paulette Rebchuck in “Grease 2.”
But Luft couldn’t continue to perform while going through chemo, and she had to cancel multiple appearances due to her treatments. While bidding a temporary goodbye to the stage was difficult, Luft noted that one of the hardest parts of her treatment was something that every chemo patient struggles with – hair loss.
Fortunately, Luft was lucky to meet a woman named Flora Shepelsky, a talented wig designer based out of Teaneck, N.J. who founded Design by Flora. Luft credited Shepelsky with making her feel like a woman again.
“She said, ‘Don’t cut your hair. Let me see your hair before,’” Luft said. “Because some people before they go through it, they buzz their hair. She said, ‘Don’t do that,’ and she designed a wig that looks exactly like my hair – because you’re looking at it.”
Though more treatments still lie ahead for 60-year-old Luft, she has regained her strength and is ready to share her story with her fans. Luft, who is married and has two children, ultimately hopes that she can inspire others who are going through similar situations to take control of their health and have a positive outlook on their situation.
“Your attitude has so much to do with your recovery, because it’s really easy to curl up in a ball, and stay in bed… The hard part is saying I’m not going to do this and I’m going to fight this, I’m going to make fun of it, and I’m going to laugh, I’m going to have a sense of humor….So when you are sick, and you really need that. It’s amazing how your attitude really will lead to your recovery,” Luft said.
Eager to get back to her career, Luft will be making a return to the stage at the Ice Palace on Fire Island on August 31. Called “An Evening With,” the show will feature songs from some of the famous composers and lyricists Luft has worked with throughout the years. Shepelsky has even designed several wigs for Luft’s upcoming performances.
According to Luft, the shows are a way of saying ‘thank you’ to her family, friends and all the people who have supported her over the past six months.
“I felt that I wanted to thank everyone individually. So this, coming back to work is my way of saying ‘thank you,’” Luft said. “It’s because your messages, your words of encouragement and all of that, to me ,led me to get up on a stage – and here I am.”