‘ER’ star Maura Tierney debunks chemo myths after breast cancer

Actress Maura Tierney was set to star in a new TV show – NBC’s Parenthood – when doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer in 2009.

Tierney, who played a nurse on ER for 10 years and starred opposite Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar, immediately thought, “I’m too young. I can’t have breast cancer.” She was 42 at the time.

According to the American Cancer Society, 95 percent of new breast cancer cases occur in women age 40 or older. The society says breast cancer is the most common cancer among women.

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. More than 210,00 U.S. women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I remember just how afraid I was. I was just as much afraid of the treatment as the diagnosis. So I thought I could talk about it in an authentic way.”

— Maura Tierney

Tierney initially had a skin-sparing mastectomy – and thought that was the end – but pathology reports revealed she had a different type of cancer than doctors thought, so she needed three months of chemotherapy.

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Tierney passed on playing the leading role of Sarah Braverman in Parenthood in order to concentrate on her treatment.

“I thought surgery was going to solve my problem, and I was really anxious about getting chemotherapy,” she said.

That’s one of the reasons Tierney has partnered with pharmaceutical company Amgen to be the face of its campaign Chemotherapy: Myths or Facts? to dispel common myths about the treatment.

“I remember just how afraid I was,” Tierney said. “I was just as much afraid of the treatment as the diagnosis. So I thought I could talk about it in an authentic way.”

Tierney said she feared she would be “totally wiped out,” and people told her there would be certain foods she couldn’t eat – but that wasn’t necessarily the case.

“Patients can pretty much live their life the way they live their lives,” she said about chemotherapy treatment. “I had wonderful doctors, and I asked them a lot of questions. That’s the premise of the campaign . . .be loud. Don’t be embarrassed. Ask any question because no question is stupid when it comes to chemotherapy.”

Dr. Patrick Cobb, a medical oncologist at Frontier Cancer Center in Billings, Mo., is also a part of Amgen’s campaign. He echoed Tierney’s thoughts.

“I think patients who are faced with taking chemo come in with preconceived notions about what they can and can’t do,” he said. “One of the common myths is that they’ll have to be isolated – they can’t go to the grocery store, can’t be around their kids or grandkids or pets. Most people can lead a normal life during chemo treatment.”

However, it is important to note that each cancer case is different  - one person’s experience may not be the same as another’s – and chemotherapy regimens are designed toward each individual patient. It’s important to talk to your doctor about what you should expect and what you can (and cannot) do.

Cobb  noted there are literally hundreds of different types of chemotherapy, and doctors prescribe various drugs for certain types and stages of cancer.

He said many patients are also worried about nausea and their hair falling out.

“There are certainly treatments for nausea; we are much better about that than we used to be,” Cobb said. “And, as far as hair falling out – it depends on the regimen.”

Cobb and Tierney urge cancer patients to get as much information as they can by talking to their doctors and nurses, who can serve as great resources. Cancer patients and their families should also visit the campaign’s website chemomythsorfacts.com.

“For me, and I think for a lot of people, this is an endurable process than I had anticipated,” Tierney said. “It’s very difficult, but I did it, and it’s terrible, and then it’s over.”

Tierney has an arc on The Good Wife this season where she is reunited with former ER co-star Julianna Margulies. Tierney plays a billionaire heiress, who she said is “fun.”