Written by Madoline Markham
Portrait by Beau Gustafson
Voice over actress Nancy McLemore knows exactly what a breast cancer diagnosis sounds like. She recounts it for me in her living room, assuming her name is Kathy Smith.
“Ms. Smith, I am here to discuss the results of your findings,” she says with the professional tone of a doctor.
“What? What do you mean?” she says a bit more franticly, now giving voice to a patient.
“Well, this finding shows that you have a mass,” the doctor replies.
“A mass? That sounds like I’m going to Catholic church. What do you mean?” the patient says, perplexed.
“Um, well, it’s a carcinoma,” he clarifies.
“What’s that?” she asks.
“Well, you have been diagnosed with a small cancerous…”
“Ohhhhhhh…” Her voice drops. Her face goes flat.
The first time McLemore played out this scene she was acting as a “standardized patient” to train medical residents. The second time it was her real life.
Four years after the “sobering case” of playing a breast cancer patient, McLemore got word that her mammogram results had come back irregular. Her real case was “just a tiny fraction different” than the one she had acted out: right breast, behind the nipple, invasive (not just contained in the ductile system). In the simulation she had a 1.5-centimeter spiculated breast lesion, while in real life it was 1.3 centimeters.
“It really became surreal because the thing that I had was breast cancer almost exactly like the case I played,” she says. “It was sort of a journey from fake to real.”
Fortunately, McLemore’s aggressive form of cancer was caught early, but that didn’t make the diagnosis any less shocking. “It’s so much information,” she explains. “You lose about 30 percent of what the surgeon tells you. I remember thinking, ‘My gosh, they just said I have cancer!’”
McLemore is always joking about her daily “ailment” as an actor for hospital training, so when she tried to tell her family about her diagnosis, they didn’t believe her. It took 30 minutes to convince one of her sisters that she really did have breast cancer.
“Being the fake version was a lot more fun than the real version,” she says with a laugh. “I learned a ton more being a fake patient and being a fake surgeon than the normal patient, which is helpful.”
McLemore has been doing voice over acting for informational videos, among other projects, for more than 20 years, but it wasn’t until five years ago that she started helping train doctors and nurses in a simulated setting both for practice and testing purposes. Along with playing a “fake patient” as doctors make a diagnosis or take a patient history, she has role played as a surgeon to add a level of reality and accountability to training for anesthesiology residents.
Operating on a sophisticated mannequin that breathes and has a heart rate and a voice, she might be, for example, repairing a hernia and putting in a Hickman Port catheter, when she “messes up,” and the anesthesiologist has to be professional and handle the case as it appears.
In some scenarios, she might play a “difficult” surgeon. “How much is left in your tank?” she reenacts with an irritated, commanding voice. “I don’t want to know in 30 minutes. I want to know how much now!”
As a “fake patient,” McLemore had to study a medical case and the details of the patient’s family history—learning facts like that lungs have five lobes or where her liver, spleen, and appendix are. McLemore says most people are familiar with the concept of standardized patients from an incident in an episode of Seinfeld.
“It’s definitely helped me to be a much more informed patient and be more human in the interactions [at the hospital],” McLemore reflects now that she is eight months into cancer treatment.
Now when she goes into surgery, she says, “Okay, what are you giving me?” and lists off names of medicines she knows. Physicians usually ask if she’s a doctor, to which she says, “No, but I play one.” “The line between real and fake is interesting,” she says.
Throughout her cancer journey, McLemore has been posting to a humorous yet very real blog. She had originally thought of the term “hypochondriactress” to define herself for a one-woman show about her “crazy fake ailments.”
“Then when I was diagnosed with cancer, I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got the material now. I’m doing a blog,’” she says. Most of the blog so far has been about her real experiences of breast cancer, laced with her quirky sense of humor.
After a friend told her she had a “bad mammogramma,” she naturally pulled her string bass into the tiny padded closet where she does her voice over work and recorded a short jingle: “Nah nah nah nah nah nah nah, whoo! She’s got a bad mammogramma, just as bad as it could be, but could have been worse.” The recording now lives on her blog alongside an account of a kind technologist who walked her through her follow-up mammogram experience.
“NEEDLE and BIOPSY are scary words when used by themselves. When used together, they become terrifying,” she writes to open a post about her diagnosis. “…I won’t forget the sting of the needle biopsy, but Michelle and Marcia’s care will be what I take home.”
For another post, she and her sister made a video homage to a scene from the 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? where McLemore is served a plate of rats for a meal in her hospital room.
“You have to find the fun, and find the fun where you can,” McLemore says. “It’s kind of gross—the drains and all that stuff, but I’m just trying to be real. This is what my experience has been.”
Using photos and videos, McLemore documents the good, bad, and hilarious of 12 weeks of chemo treatments and the “fatigue, nausea, heartburn, and hair loss” that came along with them. “I cried many times,” she writes in her eighth post. “Too many pity parties to count. Sometimes a person gets to choose her poison. Sometimes not.”
Showing photos of drains installed after her double mastectomy, she says they gave new meaning to the phrase “getting a six pack.” There’s a video of her getting stuck with a needle, a humble ode of words to her caregivers, and a recounting of watching a Lifetime movie about a drug she is taking.
“Sometimes part of the blog is cathartic, it helps me process all that’s happening,” McLemore says. “And sometimes it’s extremely emotional, and sometimes I just find certain things so funny.”
This fall, McLemore completed her chemo treatments, was still taking the antibody Herceptin, and underwent an eight-hour breast reconstruction surgery. At the end of March, a PET scan will determine if the cancer has spread or not. One thing is certain: There are sure to be many jokes between now and then. “You just have to have fun,” she says. “You have to add it in when you feel really bad.”
To follow McLemore’s journey, visit hypochondriactress.com.