A Touch of Magic
In 1988, she was quick to sign on when a friend asked if she would be interested in narrating the documentary Coverup: Behind the Iran Contra Affair. “She read the script and she just called us right up … and said she’d love to do it,” says Barbara Trent, the film’s producer. Four years later, in 1992, Montgomery teamed up with Trent again to narrate The Panama Deception, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.
“She was so sweet,” recalls Trent. “Our sound studio was so small [that] once we closed the door to have silence, there was no air conditioning and we were dripping [with sweat]. But she was always perfectly composed. And she would do a take as many times as she was asked. She told us the greatest joy was when she looked up and [we told her] the recording was perfect—and we were nobodies. … I have no reason to believe that we would have won the Oscar without her.
“She was the perfect person to narrate the film,” Trent adds, “because she was so un-political in her public life. There was no one who had a negative political opinion of her, which was ideal.”
Off the Radar
When Montgomery died in May 1995, colorectal cancer was the second leading cause of U.S. cancer deaths, as it is today. But the idea of colorectal cancer screening wasn’t on most people’s radar. In fact, it wasn’t until December 1995 that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force for the first time, acting on evidence from recent studies, recommended that primary care physicians have their asymptomatic patients over 50 routinely screened for colorectal cancer, by either a fecal occult blood test or flexible sigmoidoscopy.
Over the next few years, colonoscopy also began to be more widely recommended for screening, due to its ability to both detect cancer early as well as prevent it through the removal of precancerous polyps. The procedure received a boost in March 2000, when news anchor Katie Couric focused attention on the importance of colorectal cancer screening by undergoing a colonoscopy on NBC’s Today show, which she co-hosted at the time. (Her husband had died of the disease in 1998 at age 42.) The following year, access to the procedure increased dramatically when Medicare agreed to cover routine colonoscopy screening. “That was a game-changer,” says Heather M. Brandt, a social and behavioral scientist at the University of South Carolina, in Columbia.
Due to increased screening, colorectal cancer incidence and mortality in the U.S. have decreased over the past decade. But more work remains. The most recent data indicate that about 40 percent of U.S. adults are still not receiving appropriate screening. And not all groups are benefitting equally from these prevention efforts. It’s important to note, says Brandt, that “we have not seen the same declines in African-Americans that we’ve seen in European Americans, and that among Hispanics we don’t see the same reductions either.” For the most part, she says, this is not due to race or ethnicity but to social problems such as access to health care.
A Changing Time
If the screening recommendations we have today were in place in the 1980s, it is quite possible that Montgomery would have had her first colorectal cancer screening test at age 50, and that her cancer would have been caught early and had a better chance of being cured, or maybe even prevented.
Foxworth believes she might have held the cancer at bay longer if she had contacted her doctor when she first began to experience pain and other symptoms. But that wasn’t the choice she made. “Hers was one of avoidance basically, and denial,” says Foxworth, who can still recall how shocked he was at how she looked after she had completed her last movie, Deadline for Murder. “I immediately told her, ‘Something is wrong.’ She said, ‘I’m all right.’ But within the next week her doctor took her to a specialist, and that’s when the diagnosis was made.” It was a Saturday, and the surgery was scheduled for Wednesday. But it was too late: The cancer had already spread to her liver and lungs, and then, he says, “Things went from bad to worse.”
The treatments that are available today also might have allowed Montgomery to live longer. “We have better diagnostic imaging procedures, better chemotherapy, effective targeted therapy, and pharmacology and pharmacokinetics—as well as molecular profiling of tumors—to help us understand how to combine various therapies and [determine] which therapies might be most beneficial for the individual patient,” explains Edith Mitchell, a medical oncologist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.
She was an inspiration to everyone she worked with.
Today, Mitchell says, “approximately 20 percent of patients diagnosed with colon and rectal cancers already have metastases to other organs such as the liver or lungs at the time of their diagnoses,” which has made “multidisciplinary care, which can include collaboration with surgeons who specialize in liver, lung or other areas,” standard. It’s also now common to combine therapies, she says, “using chemotherapy and targeted therapies to shrink tumors in organs like the lung and liver … which can make surgery to remove those tumors possible.”
There is no one standard of care, Mitchell notes. “We take a personalized approach,” she says, “and [Montgomery’s] tumor would have been tested to see if it had a KRAS genetic mutation or other molecular features that would point to which therapy is likely to be most effective.”
Her Memory Lives On
Montgomery died on May 18, 1995, at age 62, at her home in Beverly Hills, with Foxworth and her three children by her side. But her memory and her performances live on: immortalized on websites devoted to her and Bewitched, on YouTube and Netflix, and in Lappin Park in Salem, Mass.—the site of the 1692 witch trials—where, in 2005, the TV Land cable network erected a 9-foot bronze statue to honor Samantha, Montgomery’s most famous role.
“Wherever I have gone—during the time she was alive and since she died—and run into people she worked with, they all talked about how much they loved working with her,” says Foxworth. “She was not a Hollywood quote-unquote snooty, egomaniacal leading lady. She was an inspiration to everyone she worked with. She was one of those people you thought would never die.”
Sue Rochman, a contributing editor for Cancer Today, is a medical journalist based in San Francisco.