At 75, Ruth Drazen has begun a new life making films about death and illness.
Drazen, who until a few years ago had no filmmaking experience, has embarked on a journey to explore through film how people can live their lives more productively and lovingly by confronting the inevitable.
"This is the most important and meaningful thing I've ever done with my life," Drazen said this week by phone from her Manhattan apartment. "Illness and death are all part of life. I want to be able to show people that we can learn to cope with suffering, that we can face adversity if we have love in our lives."
Drazen's maiden voyage in her journey, "When Doctors Get Cancer," airs Sunday on KCET-TV Channel 28. The one-hour documentary examines six physicians who find themselves re-examining the doctor-patient relationship when they or members of their immediate families learn they have cancer.
Although a few of the physicians featured were treated successfully, others died soon after the documentary was completed.
"I wanted the film to open the hearts of many people--physicians and the lay public," Drazen said. "Doctors have their own mind-set about the psychological and physical pain their patients go through. But the public also has to make a big adjustment because many think the cure is just around the corner and they want to punish doctors if the results aren't right."
The impetus for the film was the death of Drazen's husband, who died in 1987 after a 10-year bout with prostate cancer. "We were married for 28 years, and I was so vulnerable that I didn't think I could live without my husband," she said. "I thought that would be it for me. It was an enormous challenge for me to make a new life. It was very, very hard."
At that time, she was executive director of the National Genetics Foundation, a position she had held for more than 25 years. "I felt I understood the barriers between physicians and patients," she said.
Although Drazen had no filmmaking experience, she did have some blood ties to the entertainment industry. Her brother, Bud Yorkin, is a prominent film and television director and producer. Her niece, Nicole Yorkin, and nephew, David Yorkin, are both screenwriters.
She embarked on the project alone, however, starting out like a young film student. She channeled her sorrow into making the film: "When I learned there were doctors who had cancer, I made appointments and spent a lot of time with them. They were very open, and they learned to trust me."
She intended to make the film for use in medical schools, and she obtained grant money from Cerenex Pharmaceuticals to that end. But the project eventually gained attention outside the medical community and won several film festival awards.
Now Drazen is working on a film on the management of pain in pediatric cancer patients, and on another looking at suffering and coping with it. A third film will deal with grieving.
She acknowledges that her subjects are not exactly popcorn fare.
"But it's inevitable that we'll all be in that skin, and illness and death are part of life," she said.
"But we can face adversity if we have love in our lives. I'm finding that through making these films, I'm less fearful of my own inevitable death. I'm able to climb the mountain. Life has become very, very precious, and there is no end of possibilities."
* "When Doctors Get Cancer" airs at 4:30 p.m. Sunday on KCET-TV Channel 28.