Ann Jillian is nothing if not gutsy. And her participation in the story of her own breast cancer offers plenty of proof. "The Ann Jillian Story," tonight's NBC movie, at 9 on Channel 4, stars the actress as herself, thereby acquiring for itself a certain integrity beyond its cinematic worth.
About two years ago, Jillian was confronted with breast cancers -- a malignant growth in each breast -- and although one might have been susceptible to lumpectomy/radiation treatment, that option was not available for the other.
She opted for a double mastectomy at the age of 34, at the peak of her singing, dancing, comedic career, determined to let it be no more than a minor inconvenience professionally.
Under the circumstances, her prognosis was not all bad. There was evidence that the two lumps were unrelated, meaning that one had not spread from the other. Moreover, there was no evidence that either had spread (this information presumably came from biopsies of lymph nodes, although there is no mention of that in the dramatization).
Jillian also opted for a preventive course of chemotherapy, a not unreasonable choice for a 34-year-old woman. (Even when lymph nodes are negative, there is a only a good chance -- about 75 percent -- of no recurrence. There is good evidence that the odds can be improved, or the recurrence at least forestalled, by chemotherapy.) However, in Jillian's case the side effects conflicted with her determination to get her career back on track, and, with her physician's concurrence, the course was ended prematurely.
Whether or not Jillian made the right choices, the fact is she did make choices. This is probably the most important message this program has to offer. Jillian found out what her options were, weighed them, consulted her family as well as her medical counselors, and chose a treatment course tailored for her and her needs.
Much of "The Ann Jillian Story" is a tribute to her husband Andy Murcia, a one-time Chicago vice cop who became her manager. Tony Lo Bianco plays the role with sensitivity and wit, depicting the kind of support for his wife and her problems that is close to ideal. The scenes in which he first sees the mastectomies -- something Jillian did not let him do for some time after the operation -- are the program's most powerful. Viveca Lindfors plays Jillian's mother with her unique touch.
The program might not stand alone on its artistic merits, but it has a lot to offer as an exercise in courage and candor. NBC and Ann Jillian are to be commended for that.