Fearless Fighter

She is an actor/singer/entertainer who entered the national limelight as Miss America of 1959. He is a surgical oncologist whose research has changed the way breast cancer is treated worldwide. What Mary Ann Mobley and Armando E. Giuliano, MD, share—besides the close bond they have developed since she became his patient nearly a decade ago—is the tenacity they bring to the battle against breast cancer. “I can do it” is the mantra that keeps Mary Ann going even in her darkest moments. Dr. Giuliano confronts obstacles in his trailblazing work as a surgeon and scientist with the same resolve.

On September 6, 1958, 21-year-old Mary Ann Mobley was crowned Miss America in front of 60 million television viewers and a live audience in Atlantic City, New Jersey—a long way from her hometown of Brandon, Mississippi, and its population of 2,500.

Since that crowning moment, Mary Ann’s life has taken many twists and turns as her talent, adventurous spirit, compassionate heart, and personal health challenges have led her in unexpected directions. Her humanitarian work led her to Third World countries—Cambodia, Ethiopia, Somalia, Zimbabwe—where she traveled in dangerous territory to film documentaries on the plight of starving children and the devastating impact of war on young lives.

She filmed amid guerrilla gunfire in Mozambique, but even that did not deter her. She also has performed trapeze acts, flown in an F/A-18 Hornet with the Blue Angels, and gone on diving expeditions that brought her face-to-face with sharks. “All my life, I didn’t want fear to stop me,” she says. “I will rush out to face the unknown rather than have it hang over me.”

For the past eight years, this has meant facing breast cancer with the help of her surgical oncologist, Armando E. Giuliano, MD. She is one of many patients who followed him when he was recruited from Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica in 2011 to serve as Cedars-Sinai’s vice chair of Surgical Oncology.

Sitting on the patio at a favorite Beverly Hills restaurant on a balmy evening, Mary Ann talks about life and her cancer battle with humor and frankness—pausing periodically to offer waiters generous doses of her gracious Southern charm. She reflects on everything from her surprise at winning the Miss America pageant (“I was short with a Darth Vader haircut”) to the way she keeps her problems in perspective by reminding herself of others who are less fortunate. “I’m always aware of how lucky I am,” she says.

After a year of nonstop Miss America travel, she continued her entertainment career in Broadway musicals. A diagnosis of debilitating Crohn’s disease slowed her down for a bit, but once her symptoms were under control, she garnered starring roles on film, stage, and television, including romantic leads in Elvis Presley movies (Harum Scarum and Girl Happy), recurring parts on television’s Diff’rent Strokes and Fantasy Island, and guest roles on many other popular series.

In 2004, following a mammogram, Mary Ann was told she had a precancerous lesion in her left breast. After Dr. Giuliano performed a lumpectomy, she was soon able to return to her busy life, but she continued to see him every six months.

Then in March 2009, when she was between appointments, something strange happened. Her normally lethargic rescue dog—a cross between a Corgi and a Jack Russell Terrier, named Benjamin Brewster Collins—“went crazy,” Mary Ann recalls. “He was jumping up and down, following me around, and putting his paw on my right breast like he was trying to tell me something.”

“All my life, I didn’t want fear to stop me. I will rush out to face the unknown rather than have it hang over me.”

She called Dr. Giuliano and asked to come in for a checkup. The oncologist took the part about her dog’s mysterious behavior in stride but performed a physical exam and ordered a mammogram. Nothing. At this point, Mary Ann thought her doctor might send her home. Instead, he made a decision that may have saved her life. “He told me, ‘I can’t feel anything, and the mammogram doesn’t show anything, but you know your body and I will always listen to you. Let’s get an MRI.’” As soon as the results were in, he called her. “You and Brewster were right,” he said.

This time, Mary Ann required more extensive treatment—another lumpectomy and lymph node removal, radiation, chemotherapy, and five years of estrogen-blocking hormone therapy to reduce her risk of recurrence.

“When they told me it was Stage III cancer and I’d have to go through all this treatment, I thought: ‘Others have done this. I can do it, too. It’s not going to help to cry,’” she says.

Dr. Giuliano says Mary Ann has faced cancer with “courage, determination, and grace. She is always looking at the positive side of life—and her sense of humor is never far from the surface. This makes her a joy to be around, and an inspiration to other patients.”

She acknowledges there are times when fear of another recurrence arises, but adds, “I don’t dwell on ‘what ifs.’” She says she will always be grateful to Dr. Giuliano. “Every time I go in for a checkup, I know he is doing everything he can to keep me alive. And now he is looking out for a second generation of my family as my daughter faces a higher risk because of what I’ve been through.”

Mary Ann says she and cancer have “come to terms with each other.” This frees her to get back to performing and also do something she considers her duty as a breast cancer survivor: to speak out about the importance of being proactive about regular screenings to ensure early detection.

Mary Ann places no limits on what she might do in the future. She may even return to scuba diving. This idea brings up a broad smile—and a memory. Her father gave her a pony when she was about 9 years old. She fell off eight times, and each time he urged her to get back on. Finally, she was able to ride, and she vividly remembers the sense of pride she felt in her accomplishment. “What a wonderful feeling that was,” she says. “There’s got to be another pony out there.” 

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