Lorna survived two types of cancer
It was Joan Rivers. “We fell to talking about friends we had in common, about some of the bad things that had happened to us, a whole raft of stuff. “Then she gave me the best piece of advice I’ve ever had.
“She looked me in the eye and said, ‘You gotta find the funny’. She told me that should be my mantra.
“Once you’ve absorbed even the worst bit of news, she said, you’ve got to find something in it that’s humorous. It’s such a good philosophy for life.”
The younger daughter of Hollywood royalty – Judy Garland and producer Sidney Luft – Lorna is also the half-sister of Oscar-winning actress and singer Liza Minnelli.
Hers has been something of a roller coaster life, her childhood sometimes chaotic in the care of her much-loved if unpredictable mother.
But the past decade in particular has seen Lorna – who is 70 at the end of this month – having to dig deep to find the funny.
On December 17, 2012, she was relaxing in front of the TV after giving a concert in New York.
“My hand brushed across my right breast,” she recalls, “and touched what seemed to be a lump.
“I asked my husband [British musical director Colin Freeman] what he thought. He confirmed there was a hard lump. I was in total denial.”
Back in America, she made an appointment to see a doctor who insisted on an immediate mammogram. “The radiologist told me the lump didn’t look great because it didn’t have liquid around it, which it would if it were a cyst.”
Two days later, Lorna was having a pedicure when she got a call from the radiologist.
Lorna with best friend Barry Manilow
“He told me, ‘Lorna, you have Grade 3 breast cancer’. I stood and, barefoot, walked out of the salon. I was going, ‘Oh my God!’ over and over.”
Reeling from the news, she called her husband, her manager, a girlfriend.
“I felt like I’d been pushed out of a helicopter into the ocean and told to swim home. I didn’t know where I was going or what I was doing.
“So I called Barry Manilow who I’d known since 1972. He’s like my brother.”
He it was who set Lorna on the best possible path to recovery.
“I will not allow this to happen to you,” he said and fixed an appointment with David Agus, one of the world’s top cancer specialists. In due course,Agus told Lorna to get a number of tests to determine what he would be dealing with.
These included an MRI and a PET (positron emission tomography) scan that uses a radioactive inky “tracer” to look for disease in the body.
“But he said to me, ‘I’m telling you right now, Lorna, you’re going to be OK’. He said he was looking at my biopsy and that this wasn’t an empty promise.”
It was then that Lorna started taking her condition seriously. “I’d been pushing it to one side.”
Only then did she tell her son, Jesse, now 47, and her daughter, Vanessa, 42, (from her first marriage to rock singer Jake Hooker). “He was stoic – she was very upset.”
Then she went to see David Agus in LA, her heart in her mouth. “There’s a tiny little cafe called the Lazy Daisy right in the middle of Wilshire Boulevard where my friend Kim and I stopped to buy some coffee before my first consultation.
“I stepped up to the counter to pay and happened to glance up at the wall behind the cash register. There was just one poster pinned there. It was of my mother in A Star Is Born. I saw her eyes looking straight back at me. It was a sign.”
Her surgeon presented her with two choices: a lumpectomy possibly followed by chemo and radiation, or a mastectomy and no aftercare.
“I opted for the first because I wanted to save my breast. I went to great lengths to research what was happening to me and the advances in treating this disease. Knowledge is power.”
Two days later, she was admitted to Cedars- Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills.
“I had surgery and was back home again within the day. The PET scan had revealed the cancer hadn’t spread to the lymph nodes – the tumour was confined to the breast.” But better safe than sorry: chemo was recommended.
“So, I told my children and Barry what was happening and then rang my sister.
“From the first moment I’d told her after the original diagnosis, she was asking, ‘OK, what do we do? Where do we go?’
Luft with half sister Liza Minnelli
“It was ‘we’ from the start. She’s my big sister. She was just extraordinary. Throughout it all, she’d phone Colin every other day.
“Contrary to what you might have read, Liza and I get on great. Everyone seems to want to create drama around our relationship.
“But we don’t have drama. We have love. I rang her the other day. I said, ‘According to the media, we’ve had an argument and we’re not speaking’. She laughed. ‘Really?’ she said. ‘Well, you’d better get off the phone then’.”
Throughout it all, positivity was the overriding name of the game. “I never spent one day in bed, never one day without full make-up. I called it my war paint. They told me that 90 per cent of my recovery was going to be linked to my attitude.
“So, I made up my mind: if I was going to have breast cancer, I was going to do it in stilettos. I’m determined to live with cancer… ., not die from it.”
Three years ago she was performing at The Pheasantry in London’s King’s Road.
“I could remember the lyrics of my songs but I got kind of lost in between.
“I thought it was jet lag. But it was worse the second night and that’s when my husband insisted I go to be checked out at a hospital.”
An MRI scan revealed a brain tumour. Steroids were used to shrink it over a couple of days to a point where it was judged Lorna was safe to fly to America and not suffer a stroke mid-air.
Within a week the tumour was removed in LA. Radiation followed and happily, there has been no recurrence. “I had an MRI before I flew to the UK and everything’s great.”
She’s here to star (again) as Martha Watson in Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, having first toured the UK in the same role in 2006.
She has appeared as Martha many times since, both in this country and across America.
The six-week tour will take place in Truro, Nottingham, Sunderland and, finally, the Empire in Liverpool across the month of December. Jay McGuiness, former band member of The Wanted, co-stars.
So, what is it about this musical in general and the part in particular that entices Lorna back time and again? “You know that cosy, warm sweater you put on each winter?” she says. “It’s familiar and it’s comforting. That’s what this show is like.” She’s been appearing in White Christmas on and off now for 16 years.
“It’s a gift. And, considering what we’ve all been through with the pandemic, it’s a tonic. Everybody needs Irving Berlin at Christmas.”
Indeed, she was on yet another tour of the musical in the US when theatres were summarily closed down as Covid hit.
“I turned to my husband and said I didn’t think I’d ever do White Christmas again.”
Imagine her delight when the call came through inviting her to reprise her role in this latest UK tour. Retirement, then, is out of the question? She looks scandalised.
“Never! We dress up and become other people. And get paid for it. It’s fun. What’s not to like?”
So, she’s happy? “Of course,” she says, and she doesn’t hesitate. Why? “Because I’m alive.”
For info: whitechristmasthemusical.co.uk