Ann Jillian had a bit of the evangelical zeal in her voice: "This is the truth," she said. "There can be life after breast cancer, but you have to be the one to say 'I'm going to live that life.'"

But then, hers is the voice of experience. Jillian not only endured a double mastectomy, she was back at work in a show (Irwin Allen's "Alice in Wonderland") a mere 11 days after surgery in April 1985, calling the situation "a major inconvenience." This week the account of her experience airs on NBC, called simply "The Ann Jillian Story."

Most people who recall the actress' work, either as tart-tongued Cassie the waitress on an ABC series "It's a Living" or as the provocative Mae West in a 1982 TV movie, think of her as spunky.

"That's what my personality is, spunky," Jillian, 36, said last week. "Over the last two years I've noticed that people expect me to maintain my spunkiness."

Over the past two years, Jillian has had ample reason not to be so upbeat. A woman whose career as a comedienne, singer and actress was blooming, a woman who had always considered herself to be healthy and who at the time too young to be in the high-risk age group for breast cancer, she nevertheless found that she had malignancies in both breasts. Because the tumors had grown rapidly, her surgeon recommended mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy.

At the time, Jillian said she would not do a TV movie about her situation, nor an autobiography. But an account of her ordeal appearing in the Aug. 19 edition of People magazine generated a flood of letters that caused her to change her mind. By March 1986, she was willing to talk about a possible film.

"I got word through the grapevine at the studios that some scripts had come in and they were very closely based on my situation," she said then. "What bothered me was that if it were to be misconstrued, all of the efforts I put into taking the fear out of it {cancer} might come back into it {the story}, because I didn't know how those people intended to do it. I decided to have control of it. This is my story. What it essentially will be is a love story ... how we worked together, how we went forward toward this major inconvenience in my life."

The movie was 2 1/2 years in the making. "We had associations with producers that we thought were going to start out to be credible, but we found out that some of them had preconceived notions, stereotypical ideas."

Jillian and her husband, Andy Murcia, settled on producer Peter Thompson and executive producer Andrea Baynes. They also chose scriptwriter Audrey Davis Levin, who had written for "Family," an ABC series in the late '70s in which the lead character, Kate Lawrence (Sada Thompson), also suffered breast cancer.

"Andy and I were the research for Audrey ... Many of the things that are in there are what we said, sewn together with the writer's ability, paraphrased. When Andy says, 'She's got thunder in her pipes,' that's exactly what he said. When I said, 'First one, now two,' that's exactly what I said. You may like some of the things that we do, you may not like some of the things that we do. We are two human beings ..."

Jillian met New York-born Murcia in Chicago in 1978 where she was booked into the Ambassador East/West hotels for a nightclub act. Murcia, a vice-squad sergeant moonlighting as hotel security officer, initially wondered if the attractive woman wearing heavy make-up was a hooker. Their encounter in the hotel lounge, when she realizes what he is thinking, is one of the movie's lighter moments.

Jillian, daughter of Lithuanian immigrants (played by Viveca Lindfors and George Touliatos), had been in show business since she was 4 and played Little BoPeep in Walt Disney's version of "Babes in Toyland." At 12, she was Dainty June in the film version of "Gypsy."

Three months after they met, Jillian and Murcia were married, and for several years he worked as her manager. She made her Broadway debut in 1979 in "Sugar Babies," starred as Cassie in the 1980 series "It's a Living" and played the lead in "Mae West." Before her breast surgery in 1985, she persuaded a skeptical Irwin Allen that she would have the stamina to continue working on "Alice in Wonderland," planned as a miniseries. In 1986, still a bit swollen from her bout with chemotherapy, she played twins in an NBC movie, "Killer in the Mirror."

"It's as much my husband's story as mine. We were a very good balance when we first met: I was a lofty dreamer; Andy was a stubborn, pragmatic individual." In the film, she said, "we don't spare the words -- we show what happened."

Indeed they do. With Tony LoBianco as Murcia, the two of them shout at each other in public places, arguing across Chicago streets and at auditions. He's rough around the edges, a man who has to learn that it won't hurt his machismo if his wife's talent is allowed to bloom. She is both sweet and a bit brassy and very ambitious.

Happily, the movie includes four Jillian songs, including the upbeat finale-with-a-message, "The Winner in You," giving viewers a chance to appreciate the voice and style that took her to Broadway. Jillian said last week that her "concert act" with Victor Borge is already booked into Philadelphia, Las Vegas and Atlantic City this year, and that "I like comedy -- -- right now I am searching for the right comedy. Broadway would be wonderful."

Eventually the love story gives way to the movie's purpose, the subject of breast cancer, from its discovery by Jillian while she is showering to the surgical options she faced, the nausea she endured from chemotherapy and the emotional adjustments for both husband and wife.

The movie never shows the physical ravages of Jillian's mastectomy, relying instead on facial expressions. "They're the enemy," LoBianco tells her before the surgery. "Get them out." Afterward, finally being allowed to see what the surgeon's knife has wrought, he registers a reaction of acceptance, followed by an understanding embrace. Obviously, a prime-time television presentation is obliged to draw the line.

"'The Ann Jillian Story'," she said, "was interesting to do. It turned out to be a delayed psychoanalysis." She was touched by the scenes in which "Andy first understands what I've been feeling. I had kept it away from him because I hadn't wanted to worry him.

"Women as a whole tend to put themselves last in the priority of things. We forget that if we don't take care of ourselves, who's going to take care of all those wonderful people we love?

"But they are our other half, and we should have our husbands involved in it because if they aren't, then at the time we need them, they can't support us the way we want to be supported. What is below it all is that we are afraid of the possible reaction that we might get from our husbands. I think until their love is actually challenged, there are times when everyone has some doubts: Do they still ... ? Do they really ... ? Sometimes we find out some beautiful things. One thing happens to be that our particular relationship was strengthened ...

"We definitely have our disagreements, but there's an underlying love. Our fights usually end up in laughter anyway. They are a good exchange of differing opinions. The bottom line is that when you have two people who care deeply for one another, you have to be friends first -- understanding through friendship and caring ... It's time that draws you close together. That's very special."

Jillian said that when she underwent surgery, statistics indicated that one out of every 11 women would become victims of breast cancer. Now it's one out of every 10. But Jillian believes that the data represent the fact that "women are in fact finding out now earlier because they are beginning to take more care of themselves." Besides, she noted, whenever a public figure acknowledges that she has breast cancer, more women make appointments for their own examinations and mammograms.

Jillian said that although she had not spoken with Nancy Reagan at the time of the First Lady's mastectomy in October, "I sent her a telegram and said that while I was filming my film I asked for a moment of quiet ... She had always been a source of strength to others. I also told her that I was available -- of course, who am I to tell her that I'm available? -- but I thought that if in a moment she felt she needed to talk to a woman, my phone number would be there. Betty Ford made herself available; she called me the night before the operation."

But how is Ann Jillian, really?

"I'm fine. I'm cured. There is absolutely no test or no instrument or no examination that shows in any way that I have even one {cancer} cell in me, so I'm cured. In many cases, remission happens to be the case. I'm not making light of that. I am making a point: that there is life after breast cancer. The point is early detection, successful detection. Sometimes it behooves physicians to give the worst-case scenario. But if you say, 'Is it possible to live through this or beyond it?,' they also have to say yes."

Jillian's gynecologist, the physician who first suspected the cancer, was a woman (played by Diane D'Aquila in the film); her surgeon was a man (played by Thomas Hauff). "Women sometimes do feel comfortable {with women physicians} because women understand other women's needs," Jillian noted. "Whether your doctor is a man or a woman, I know that doctors do not enjoy the task of telling a woman that they are going to have to perform a mastectomy or touch them in any way surgically. But the only thing that keeps them on an even keel, or us on an even keel, is that life always comes first, breast comes second. We don't need breasts. I'm trying to strip people of fear, so they can go in."

Jillian's messages are three: "Number one, early detection; number two, medical action. And faith, above all." There is no doubt, in "The Ann Jillian Story," that the actress is also a believer. The script includes a moment during the courtship when she leaves Murcia sitting on the church steps while she goes inside: "I'll light a candle for you," she says. Before she enters the hospital, she stops to pray in a church, and before surgery a priest brings her communion.

"When I played Cassie and Mae West, there was no need for anyone to ask, 'Ann, do you believe in God?' That doesn't mean that I didn't have a belief. My beliefs were very strong. My relationship with God is as good as a relationship can get. I trust in Him completely. I believe that things happen in this world that although we ask the question, we're not meant to know the answer, that we'll know the answer some day. In my religion -- Roman Catholic -- we believe that Jesus took on the suffering of the world, so that my suffering becomes part of a universal suffering. I don't necessarily have to suffer -- nobody likes to suffer -- but at the same time we do the best we can with what is given to us. I let go and let God."

Jillian mentioned a relative, now in her 80s, who endured breast cancer but did not talk about it and was afraid that people would find out. "I was being prepared without knowing it."

She was also "being prepared" by her former agent, Joyce Selznick (played by Pam Hyatt), who Jillian said "took me from the bottom up and moved mountains for me. The movie is just as much for her. And the odd thing was that she said her final goodbyes to this world in the same room and same bed that I recovered in" at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Selznick died of lung cancer.

"For those who are silent because they did not go, for those who are living productive lives -- the movie is a tribute to them," said Jillian. "And please tell your readers one more thing: This movie is for women and all the men who love them."