When people hear the name Pam Grier, several quotes and sayings from many of her Blaxploitation films may come to mind. Grier, now 71, was the queen of the 1970s tough-girl movies where no matter how rough the battle, she and her crew always came out on top.
But being a black woman in Hollywood hasn’t been Pam Grier’s toughest fight.
“I was very quiet,” Ms. Grier recalled her childhood, and she stuttered when she did talk.
Growing up, Grier was a good student who dreamed of becoming a doctor. “When I was a young girl, I never thought of acting,” she remembers. “I never thought of television, of fans, movie stars, signing autographs. It never crossed my mind.”
One life-changing experience that she had to fight through was her diagnosis of stage-four cancer in 1988. Grier was in her late 30s, a self-described “health-nut”, running six miles a day, not eating meat and not abusing my body in any way”. She’d gone for a routine cervical smear and got a call from her doctor’s surgery who said they’d found abnormal cells in her test results. She was booked in for an operation to remove the abnormal tissue and told she’d be fine. But, afterwards, her pathologist called to say it wasn’t good news; the next day, her doctor sat her down to tell her she had 18 months to live.
Even though her adopted sister, Krista, died of breast cancer, the news of her own cervical cancer diagnosis came as a shock.
“They couldn’t operate or start treatment for another six weeks, as I’d already had surgery and my body had gone through so much trauma. They gave me only 16-18 months to live and was told to start preparing for treatment and to organize my will. I coped from minute to minute. I went home to ponder this 2in-thick folder [of information] they give you.”
She describes the cancer and its treatment as a “full-time job” and says, to her surprise, that it was a lonely one. To begin with her mother tried to be with her for as much of the treatment as possible, but had to go back to Colorado to work. Her boyfriend at the time didn’t turn up for her first session of chemotherapy, but promised to come to the second. “He didn’t come. He just abandoned me and I didn’t see him for another five years,” she says, without a hint of self-pity.
“In 1988 the C-word meant: ‘Oh my God, you’re going to die. There is no hope.’ You learn who your friends are when you have cancer.” The friends who did come forward, she says, weren’t the ones she was expecting. “Those that came to my bedside were Steven Seagal, Carl Gottlieb, my mentor, and the president of the Writers Guild and film director Tamar Hoff. They were truly amazing. But a lot of people couldn’t cope and just fell away.”
Grier counts herself “lucky” and says that what she learned is that “cancer isn’t choosy. People in the cancer ward come from every ethnicity, every socio-economic background – it doesn’t matter – cancer is the common denominator.” She credits a combination of eastern and western medicine for her recovery. Her doctor sent her to a Chinese herbalist after her diagnosis, where she was prescribed “herbs and tinctures. It also taught me to drink hot tea with my food to get rid of toxins.”
This regimen, combined with yoga and chemotherapy, is what she believes “saved” her. Although she has been in remission for “years and years now”, Grier believes that getting better and staying better is a “life-long” process. She’s an avid believer in the green movement and says her recovery is “based on the environment – fresh well-water from the ground, fresh air, trees and plants, and wild animals.”
But before that life-altering fight, she had to fight physical and mental wounds. At a young age, she was left unsupervised at an aunt’s home, and was ultimately raped by two boys.
In her memoir Foxy: My Life in Three Acts, did Grier reveal that she also silently endured two incidents of sexual assault. She was raped by a group of older students when she was only six years old, and at the age of 18 she was the victim of a date rape. Fearing repercussions on her family, Grier never said a word to anyone about either incident until she sat down to write her memoirs as an adult. “I wanted others…