Lorna survived two types of cancer
It was Joan Rivers. “We got to talking about friends we had in common, some of the bad things that had happened to us, a whole bunch of things.” Then she gave me the best advice I’ve ever had.
“She looked me in the eye and said, ‘You gotta find the funny’. She told me that should be my mantra.
“Once you’ve assimilated the worst news, she says, you have to find something fun in it. It’s such a good philosophy of life.”
The youngest daughter of Hollywood royalty – Judy Garland and producer Sidney Luft – Lorna is also the half-sister of Oscar-winning actress and singer Liza Minnelli.
Her life has been something of a roller coaster, her sometimes chaotic childhood under the care of her beloved but unpredictable mother.
But the past decade in particular has seen Lorna – who turns 70 at the end of this month – having to dig deep to find the funny.
On December 17, 2012, she was relaxing in front of the TV after performing a concert in New York.
“My hand brushed my right breast,” she recalls, “and touched what felt like a lump.
“I asked my husband [British musical director Colin Freeman] what he was thinking. He confirmed that there was a hard lump. I was in total denial.”
Back in America, she made an appointment with a doctor who insisted on an immediate mammogram. “The radiologist told me the lump didn’t look good because there was no fluid around it, which it would be if it was a cyst.”
Two days later, Lorna had a pedicure when she received a call from the radiologist.
Lorna with her best friend Barry Manilow
“He was like, ‘Lorna, you have stage 3 breast cancer.’ I got up and walked barefoot out of the living room. I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ again and again.”
Shocked by the news, she called her husband, her manager, a girlfriend.
“I felt like I had been pushed out of a helicopter into the ocean and told to swim home. I didn’t know where I was going or what I was doing.
“So I called Barry Manilow who I had known since 1972. He’s like my brother.”
He was the one who put Lorna on the best possible path to recovery.
“I won’t allow that to happen to you,” he said and set up an appointment with David Agus, one of the world’s top cancer specialists. In due time, Agus told Lorna to take a number of tests to determine what he would be dealing with.
These included an MRI and PET scan (positron emission tomography) which uses a radioactive ink ‘tracer’ to look for disease in the body.
“But he was like, ‘I’m telling you right now, Lorna, it’s going to be okay.’ He said he was looking at my biopsy and it wasn’t an empty promise.”
It was then that Lorna began to take her condition seriously. “I pushed him to one side.”
It was only then that she told her son, Jesse, now 47, and her daughter, Vanessa, 42 (from her first marriage to rock singer Jake Hooker). “He was stoic – she was very upset.”
Then she went to see David Agus in LA with her heart in her mouth. “There’s a tiny little cafe called the Lazy Daisy right in the middle of Wilshire Boulevard where my friend Kim and I stopped for coffee before my first consultation.
“I went to the counter to pay and took a look at the wall behind the cash register. There was only one poster pinned there. It was of my mother in A Star Is Born. I saw his eyes looking right at me. . It was a sign.”
Her surgeon presented her with two choices: a lumpectomy possibly followed by chemo and radiotherapy, or a mastectomy without follow-up.
“I opted for the former because I wanted to save my breast. I worked hard to research what was happening to me and the progress in treating this disease. Knowledge is power.”
Two days later, she was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills.
“I had surgery and was back home within a day. The PET scan revealed that the cancer had not spread to the lymph nodes – the tumor was confined to the breast.” But prevention is better than cure: chemo was recommended.
“So I told my kids and Barry what was going on and then I called my sister.
“From the first moment I told her after the initial diagnosis, she was like, ‘OK, what are we doing? Where are we going?’
Luft with his half-sister Liza Minnelli
“It was ‘us’ from the start. She’s my big sister. She was just amazing. All the while, she was on the phone with Colin every other day.
“Contrary to what you may have read, Liza and I get along very well. Everyone seems to want to create drama around our relationship.
“But we don’t have drama. We have love. I called her the other day. I said, ‘According to the media, we had a fight and we’re not talking.’ laughed. ‘Really?’ she said. ‘Well, you better hang up the phone then’.”
Throughout it all, positivity was the overriding name of the game. “I never had a single day in bed, never a single day without full makeup. I called it my war paint. They told me said that 90% of my recovery was going to be my attitude.
“So I made my decision: If I was going to get breast cancer, I was going to do it in stilettos. I’m determined to live with cancer…not die from it.”
Three years ago she performed at the Pheasantry on King’s Road in London.
“I could remember the lyrics to my songs but I got a little lost in between.
“I thought it was jet lag. But it was worse the second night and that’s when my husband insisted I go to the hospital for a checkup.”
An MRI revealed a brain tumor. Steroids were used to reduce it within days to such an extent that it was deemed Lorna could fly to America safely and not suffer a stroke in the air.
Within a week, the tumor was removed in Los Angeles. Radiation therapy followed and luckily there was no recurrence. “I had an MRI before flying to the UK and everything is fine.”
She’s here to play (again) as Martha Watson in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, having first toured the UK in the same role in 2006.
She’s appeared as Martha many times since, both in this country and across America.
The six-week tour will take place in Truro, Nottingham, Sunderland and, finally, the Empire in Liverpool throughout December. Jay McGuiness, former member of The Wanted, co-stars.
So what about this musical in general and the part in particular that draws Lorna in time and time again? “You know that cozy, warm sweater you wear every winter? she says. “It’s familiar and it’s heartwarming. That’s what this show is like.” She has appeared occasionally in White Christmas for 16 years.
“It’s a gift. And, given what we’ve all been through with the pandemic, it’s a tonic. Everyone needs Irving Berlin at Christmas.”
Indeed, she was on another tour of the musical in the United States when theaters were summarily closed when Covid hit.
“I turned to my husband and said I never thought I would do a White Christmas again.”
Imagine her delight when the call came inviting her to reprise her role in this final UK tour. Is retirement out of the question? She looks scandalized.
“Never! We dress up and become other people. And we get paid for it. It’s fun.
So is she happy? “Of course,” she says, and she doesn’t hesitate. Why? “Because I’m alive.”
For info: whitechristmasthemusical.co.uk
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