What Marilu Henner Learned from Her Husband’s Cancer

Do you know the warning signs? Actress makes the case for quick, smart, informed action that counts

by Zachary Leeman | Updated 19 May 2017 at 10:35 AM

It was 14 years ago that “Taxi” actress Marilu Henner reconnected with the man who would eventually become her husband, Michael Brown.

“He and I had known each other in college, but we reconnected. And he was my roommate’s boyfriend the first time around, but my boyfriend the second time around,” Henner told LifeZette.

Many “people are reluctant or feel embarrassed to talk about things like blood in their urine or pain,” said Henner.

Their romance was interrupted after only three weeks when Henner noticed something odd. “We were on this wonderful vacation together, three weeks into our relationship, when I noticed he had been in the bathroom for awhile. And I went in a little bit later and said, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s a little bit of blood kind of as a backsplash in the toilet.’ I said, ‘Michael, are you bleeding? Are you OK?’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m fine. There’s been blood in my urine for two years now. I went to my doctor. He said it could be a reaction to stress, or maybe it’s a gallstone trying to work its way through, or it’s a kidney stone. I get it from time to time. It’s no big deal,'” Henner recalled.

Related: Alarming Increase in Cancer Rates Among Women

The nonchalant attitude may have shocked Henner — but unfortunately it’s not uncommon for those who are suffering from bladder cancer. This type of cancer is not talked of as much as other forms of cancer, but it should be.

“I said, ‘You must be kidding. Blood in your urine for two years is a very big deal. I want you to see my doctors back in L.A.’ He said, ‘No, I’ll go see my doctor.’ So to make a long story short, he saw his doctor. He diagnosed him with bladder cancer,” continued Henner.

Her husband was told to wait five months and then his doctor would operate. Henner demanded a second opinion — and they saw her doctors in LA. It turned out her husband's cancer was in danger of spreading to his other organs. He was treated with complementary medicine and immunotherapy, and did not require surgery. If he had waited five months like the original doctor intended, Henner said he "would have had metastasized bladder cancer."

The couple's journey led to a book called "Changing Normal," which dealt with the stigma surrounding bladder cancer and the struggles of caregivers in looking after their loved ones. Henner's outspokenness led to her teaming up with Genentech, a biotechnology firm, and BCAN (Bladder Cancer Awareness Network) for Bladder Cancer Awareness Month — which happens to be this month.

Henner has intensely researched the subject she is so passionate about; and it's her goal to use her public platform to not just spread awareness but to share her story and provide advice to people who are going through the same hardships.

"I found out that 62 percent of all people are reluctant or feel embarrassed to talk about things like blood in their urine or pain. They worry about their sexual performance, et cetera," Henner said.

She continued, "It doesn't get a lot of attention like so many other [cancers], even though it is the fourth most common in men and sixth most common overall. And men get it three, four times more often than women."

Related: A Chewing Gum That Detects Cancer?

Smokers and people exposed to toxins in their work environment can commonly get bladder cancer, which can show up early in life. Henner's husband first showed signs before he was even 50 — and Henner recalled a doctor saying he had a patient in his 30s diagnosed with the disease.

Henner believes caregivers play an important and underrated role in the treatment process. "You have to have somebody in your corner who is not afraid to ask the tough questions not only of you, but of your doctor, and that's the role of the caregiver."

For advice to people trying to take care of themselves and getting ahead of a diagnosis, Henner said she recommends going "to your doctor's appointment with an agenda." She added to take "copious notes," do your "research," and always get a "second opinion."

Related: Cancer Detection: Lighter, Quicker, Better

She also has some very practical advice for caregivers that one would hear only from a person with firsthand knowledge. "Dress in layers because it's so cold in those hospitals and doctor's offices!" she said, laughing — adding it took her a few visits before she realized the soundness of this advice.

She added, "Wear comfortable shoes because you might get an extra little workout between appointments," and, as always, "stay hydrated."

Learn more about bladder cancer at bcan.org.

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