Susan Dansby: We should tell everybody how you lost your leg.
Anita Hollander: When I was 21, I was at Carnegie Mellon University. I was a junior. And I had had some real bad pain in my leg. And no matter what I did, it just kept getting worse. And I finally stopped being able to use my left leg even though I was pretending it was still working.
I got diagnosed in my junior year with cancer in my motor nerve – a tumor in my motor nerve which is called neurofibrosarcoma. And I mean, it took 10 doctors – 9 out of 10 doctors told me there was nothing wrong with me. But that 10th doctor said I had cancer. So I never listen to 9 out of 10 doctors.
So anyway, I had the leg operated on and the motor nerve was for the most part taken out of my leg but I kept my leg and I had a brace for my leg, so that my foot would not drop.
So for five years, I went on, graduated at Carnegie Mellon, did the summer stock with a brace on my leg I was paralyzed from the knee down but I was able to dance on that leg because the brace was very flexible and you couldn’t really see it under tights. It was plastic. And went on to London, LAMDA, studied there, worked abroad, came back, worked in Boston.
And it was when I was back in Boston in 1982, five years after the first operation, that it recurred. The tumor recurred in what was left of the motor nerve in my thigh. And at that point, there was no way we could save the leg. And the leg was pretty tired from all the radiation and chemo that I had had. And it was time. They had to amputate. And I was 26 and, you know, really full throttle in my career, working very hard. And I was in the middle of a production of Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris in Boston. And I was directing it as well as in it.
And so, I would take leave of absence from the hospital. This was after the amputation. I went back to rehearsal two weeks out; but I was still in the hospital. So I would go out of the hospital each night to do rehearsals with my cast for four hours – it felt like four years – but it was four hours every night for the final two weeks of rehearsal. And we opened four weeks after my amputation. And I was on stage with a bucket and a pole for a prosthesis because they couldn’t make a permanent prosthesis that fast – they never make them that fast.
Susan Dansby: A bucket and a pole?
Anita Hollander: Yeah. Well, it’s basically a bucket and a pole. The pole is the leg, but the bucket is the top part of it that attaches to the body.
Susan Dansby: Gotcha.
Anita Hollander: And the foot at the bottom. But a long dress and crutches so that I wouldn’t have to put all my weight on it because I hadn’t really learned how to walk yet on both legs, and on the artificial leg because it wasn’t a full-fledged permanent artificial leg. It was a fake – well, they’re all fake – but it was temporary.
So I had crutches that I could lean on and that I could use. Sort of forearm crutches which were great. And I was all over the set, up and down steps and stuff like that. And it was Jacques Brel, so I was able to really use all of that. It was very cathartic with all those emotional and dramatic songs. I was able to really give my all to those.
It was exhausting but, you know, I had had cancer for the second time, and I had had an amputation; but I had a mission, too. And probably what made me heal – besides my wonderful vitamins that I had read all about, and I knew what to take. But more than that, more than that was that I had a mission.
I had an opening night; I had a deadline; I had eight-weeks of an acting job that I wasn’t going to give up on, plus I was responsible for the production as a director. And I was driven, very driven. And nobody who knows me at that point would ever say otherwise. But we worked together well, and we did the eight weeks, we got great reviews and it really – I hate to say this because it’s so pun, it’s kind of..
I got back on my feet. It got me back on my foot. And really, by the time we closed, I had a permanent prosthesis which I still really had to get to know and understand and to work with. And I was going through all kinds of adjustment troubles; but one thing that was certain was when I got on stage every night, I was fine. And it was a really wonderful thing to get me really back on track.
To be truthful, I was really only out of commission for two weeks. I was back at rehearsal fast so I never really stopped doing what I was doing. And it didn’t matter that I was losing my leg because I thought I was lucky that I had had five years of keeping my leg and getting used to the idea that I might have to lose it because it was in pretty bad shape after the first operation.
And I did all those wonderful things – dancing and acting all over Europe on a leg that was – had gotten pretty beat up. And by the time we had to amputate, I felt like that poor little leg really needed to rest. And the rest of me was raring to go so that was, in so many ways, I was lucky because my life presented itself to me in gradations so that I’ve never had to do it all cold turkey.
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