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Betty Rollin, Who Wrote Candidly About Her Breast Cancer, Dies at 87

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Betty Rollin, a network news correspondent who described intensely personal life passages in two memoirs — “First, You Cry,” about being diagnosed with breast cancer and having a mastectomy, and “Last Wish,” in which she revealed that she had helped her pain-ravaged mother end her life — died on Nov. 14 in Basel, Switzerland. She was 87.

The cause was voluntary assisted suicide, at Pegasos, an assisted dying service, said Ellen Marson, a close friend, who disclosed the death to The New York Times on Thursday. Ms. Rollin, she said, had been dealing with pain from arthritis and a gastrointestinal condition and had been brokenhearted since the death of her husband, Harold Edwards, a mathematician, in 2020.

“Betty recently told a few close friends she was going to do this,” Ms. Marson wrote in an email. “True to form, she was resolute in her decision; Betty made it clear she did not want to hear our objections to her plan.” In a phone interview, she added, “She felt she didn’t have much more to contribute.”

Ms. Rollin, who lived in Manhattan, belonged to Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group that supports expanding access to end-of-life medicine.

In “First, You Cry” (1976), Ms. Rollin dealt candidly, and at times irreverently, with her cancer diagnosis, which was delayed a year after she first felt a lump in her left breast. She wrote that her internist had dismissed it as a cyst, and that her mammographer had looked at the images and told her to come back in a year for another look.

“For almost a year, that was that,” she wrote. “Although I did not worry about the lump, I could not entirely forget about it, either. It was, after all, there. Once in a while, I’d feel it — sort of push it in with my index finger. It was an absent-minded gesture, the way one feels a mole or a callus. Still there? Still there. Oh, well, isn’t it nice that it doesn’t mean anything.”

In the book, Ms. Rollin wrote about her mastectomy, a divorce and the love affair that followed it, and her acceptance that her life did not end with the loss of a breast. Her frank writing in “First, You Cry” was part of a growing openness about discussing breast cancer publicly and the need for early detection, as was highlighted dramatically in 1974 when Betty Ford, the first lady at the time, spoke of her radical mastectomy.

Ms. Rollin, coincidentally, reported on the public reaction to Ms. Ford’s surgery for NBC News, where she had been working.

Readers’ response to “First You, Cry” was strong. “The letters I loved were from women who had it, sending me their cancer jokes,” Ms. Rollin told The Times in 1993, when the book was rereleased. “That kind of laughter is my favorite thing — it’s such a diffuser.”

She added: “Somebody once said that I was the first person to make cancer funny, which was the best compliment I ever had. I mean, cancer isn’t funny, but if you’ve got it and if you’re able to make jokes about it, I think that keeps you sane.”

The rerelease of the book — which followed a second mastectomy in 1984 — gave Ms. Rollin a chance to read her work for the first time since its original publication.

“I thought, ‘God, what is she making such a fuss about?’” she told The Times. “All this emotion about a stupid breast, which you can’t walk on or type with.”

The book was adapted into a CBS television movie in 1978, starring Mary Tyler Moore as Ms. Rollin.

Betty Rollin was born on Jan. 3, 1936, in New York City and grew up in Yonkers, N.Y. Her mother, Ida Rollin, was a schoolteacher who later worked for an executive at Horn & Hardart, which was known for its automat restaurant. Her father, Leon, a Russian Jewish immigrant, ran a plumbing business.

Betty attended Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, N.Y., where she pursued acting on campus. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1957, she studied acting with the renowned teachers Sanford Meisner and Lee Strasberg and worked in regional theatrical productions, in one acting alongside Gloria Swanson.

She also wrote the first two of her seven books, “I Thee Wed” (1961), a collection of wedding vows, and “Mothers Are Funnier Than Children” (1964), a spoof of motherhood that was published soon after she was hired as an editor and writer at Vogue magazine, having turned away from acting. She joined Look magazine as a senior editor and writer in 1966 and stayed until it folded in 1971.

Ms. Rollin went to work for NBC News in the early 1970s and stayed until 1982, when she left for a two-year stint as a correspondent for the ABC News program “Nightline.”

Her mother had ovarian cancer and died in 1983, an episode recounted in “Last Wish” (1985), which became a New York Times best seller. Ms. Rollin wrote that painkilling drugs had not been effective, and that her mother had been nauseous most of the time. She told her daughter that she was ready to die.

Ms. Rollin and her husband, Mr. Edwards, found a sympathetic doctor who suggested that her mother take a combination of drugs that would lead to death. Ms. Rollin told The Times in 1985 that her mother’s last words were: “Remember, I am the most happy woman. And this is my wish. I want you to remember.”

Ms. Rollin added: “I know people who suffer more than she did and would want to live, but she didn’t. She just simply wanted to get out.”

In “Last Wish,” she described her mother taking the lethal pills.

“Just close your eyes and relax,” she recalled telling her mother. “We’re here. Everything’s going to be all right. You did it.”

Reviewing the book in The Washington Post, Benjamin Weiser (now a reporter for The Times) called it “an apparently faithful rendering of the event by a participant who freely admits her responsibility.” He wrote that while Ms. Rollin defended her decision to help her mother end her life as an act of compassion, others might see it differently.

“Legal authorities may disagree; some could see Rollin’s book as a confession of murder,” he wrote.

Ms. Rollin said she had ignored her lawyer’s advice not to tell the story. “I figured it was worth it,” she said in an interview last year with the Kunhardt Film Foundation, adding, “I mean, I certainly didn’t want to go to prison.”

Like “First, You Cry,” “Last Wish” was turned into a TV movie, on ABC in 1992, with Patty Duke portraying Ms. Rollin and Maureen Stapleton playing her mother.

After the book was released, Ms. Rollin returned to NBC News, where she won an Emmy Award and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for a three-part series on “NBC Nightly News” in 1989 about the struggles of Native Americans on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

She continued to work for NBC as a contributing correspondent for about another decade and reported for PBS on its “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly” series.

She left no immediate survivors. Her first marriage, to Arthur Herzog, ended in divorce.

Ms. Rollin said she felt she had no choice but to be as open as possible when she was writing about her breast cancer.

“I do not enjoy the fact that everyone who’s read my book knows everything intimate in my life,” she told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1976. “But I think it’s important for people to tell the truth. It makes you feel better to get it out, and I think it makes other people feel better, too.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.

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