A Young Actress' Battle With Breast Cancer — and the Surprising Support She Found in Hollywood (Guest Column)
Just when her career seemed poised to take off, Angela Trimbur received a chilling diagnosis and discovered a community she didn't know existed in the entertainment industry.
I was buying a pastel pink pair of stripper shoes on Hollywood Boulevard but was worried the purchase would go to waste. I had a final callback in an hour to meet the director for an intriguing leading role on a new well-written cable show and wanted to feel exactly like the character in her element. She was the "best pole dancer in the United States." A topless role, which made me initially hesitant, but I decided to go for it, thinking: "Well, I am not going to have these lovely, young breasts forever, I'll soon have children and breastfeed, so I might as well celebrate and archive 'em onscreen." I fell in love with the role and all the physical training I would need to take on to prepare for her. I love all types of dancing so much so that I created a women's dance squad for which I choreograph and run public dance workshops, so anytime dance can be paired with an acting job, it's a double-triple bonus.
I sat in the waiting room for the final callback, but today was different. I was lacking the clear thrill I usually felt when about to perform my prepared work. I had a weight in my heart. I curiously gazed at the other two actresses strapping on their own ambitiously goaled stripper shoes, but this time instead of the usual instinct to imagine each of them as the role (Wow, a raspy voice, that could be interesting!) (Hmm, red hair, she could bring an unexpected edge!), I imagined their health. Were they worried about any life-threatening illnesses too? Were they on top of things, tested and safe?
You see, right after my callback, I had to head to Cedars Breast Center to get the biopsy results on a lump discovered by my OB-GYN. I sat with the unsettling feeling all weekend that it was going to be bad news. I went. It was. I had cancer in my left breast. It was fast-growing. I was also informed I was carrying the BRCA gene. The doctor suggested I remove both breasts as soon as possible and start chemotherapy straight after.
I later got a call from my agent and manager that I was pinned for the role, and I rolled my eyes in response. It all felt like a joke. A fresh new lyric for Alanis Morissette's "Ironic." I explained to my reps what I was just told. They were shocked. In that moment, I couldn't imagine how many times I would have to say the social informative update sentence: "I have breast cancer," or avoid being honest and keep it private. After I hung up, I cried at the idea of either constantly having to say it, or dance around the truth. It felt like a cringy burden either way. I thought perhaps the best decision for me would be to share what I was going through, publicly, so I could avoid that uncomfortable reaction montage. Everyone would already know and we can skip that part.
But sharing it to all those who follow me felt like walking the plank so to speak, career-wise. Who would hire you as an actor if you're public about cancer, currently undergoing a double mastectomy, then chemo? I'll basically be off the on-camera map for a year. I used to avoid taking a week vacation in fear of missing out on the Hollywood career track. Now I'm suddenly forced to just watch it pass by, then pop my head out of my groundhog hole next spring to see if there is still a place for me. I worried the burden of keeping it a secret for career-fear purposes would translate internally as shame too much, and why should anyone feel shame in something completely out of their hands? And if it seemed more common to keep the experience private, maybe I could help others also going through this by sharing my journey throughout?
A few days later, I drafted an Instagram caption of my diagnosis/plan and paired it with a photo of me in that classic Breast Cancer Pink gown that was taken in the doctor's office minutes before hearing the news.
Hands shaking, I took a heavy pause and deep breath and hit the word: SHARE. Share. I sat with that delicate word, truly noticing it there for the first time. I had always thought it just said POST.
I, of course, expected condolences when friends and acquaintances would see it: "Oh, no, that's so awful, that sucks, I'm so, so, sorry," quick heart-emoji type of thing. Aside from that, I worried I would feel very alone through this long, depressing process. As I lay in bed that evening, my apartment felt respectfully quiet. Even my rambunctious pet birds weren't making a peep, just blinking and staring. My boyfriend of three years and I had just broken up, he moved out and away to New York and had just set a boundary that he needed space despite my efforts to remain in touch. I knew my family wouldn't be coming here to help me as we aren't very close. I grew up as a home-schooled Jehovah's Witness and had a very restricted childhood, and we all have many mixed, stressful feelings about that today.
I spent a lot of teenage years alone in my bedroom, finding ways to feel creatively pacified, waiting for 3:15 p.m. every day so I could longingly watch the kids walking off the school bus out my window. After my family stopped practicing (long story), we all kind of went our own separate ways and seem to lack the ability to hold the kind of bond I long for, plus my sister has her own medical issues and is busy with her family in Pennsylvania. No one would come. I’d be alone in my bedroom again, longingly watching out the window.
But I was wrong. The girls of the dance squad started a schedule to make sure I always had someone to take me to doctors appointments, my basketball team created a GoFundMe to assist in the financial burden I'd face, my ex moved back and back in (!!!) to offer constant home care, a topless female coven-esque healing ceremony was arranged before my mastectomy per my wild dream request, there was always a meal at my doorstep at the end of a stressful day of doctors thanks to an organized food chain, friends came over to maternally rub my back and help me tidy up my consistent disorderly apartment … putting those pale pink stripper shoes away nicely on the closet shelf.
I learned so much about the kindness of genuine people, and just how many selfless people are out there, even in a town one may typically perceive to be full of those immersed in themselves. Many times I felt misplaced in this industry. Questioned if this business was a home for pure people. I thought it may just be a magnet for those always one-track-minded on their next big project, cracking jokes, addicted to networking and getting ahead. I constantly considered moving away and doing something that felt more helpful toward society, or even taking on a simpler job and focusing on raising an exemplary family.
But what's surprised me is the overwhelming amount of selfless support I have been shown here in Hollywood — from casting directors I've met a few times, to the wonderful people at the MPTF Foundation who reached out to ask how they can help, to showrunners I've worked with once, to that girl I always see in audition rooms I thought hated me. This shocking update has put a constant lovely fresh lump in my throat, and I now do in fact feel at home. A lesson in seeing and accepting and feeling worthy of love with no fear and no shame.
A friend told me that there is a romantic irony in how I was going into that audition, ready to give and bare it all for that pole dancing character …then after this diagnosis, I have taken my curiosity of learning about a character and baring it all but am applying it to learning about myself. This is a part I am playing in my own life. Curious Angela on this odd journey.
Tonight, as I look at this bald-headed body I don't quite recognize yet, a night before my fourth chemo session (of 16, ugh), I wonder what else I will learn from this journey. Other cancer survivors swear they don't look at life after treatment the same, that everything changes. I once in a low moment cried to a friend: "I feel cursed!" She said: "No, you were chosen." I keep thinking about that. Was I put in this position to battle a life-threatening illness to get to the core truth of what it means to be a human being? I'll definitely find out, right? Can I please?? BRB.
A version of this story first appeared in the 2018 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.