24 Actress Alberta Watson Dies at 60 from Lymphoma

Canadian actress Alberta Watson has died after a long battle with lymphoma.

Her death was confirmed by her agent Pam Winter, who told ET Canada:

It is the case, sadly. Alberta passed away on Saturday evening at Kensington Hospice in Toronto. Her husband Ken was by her side. We await details of a memorial service for her.”

Watson’s  career spanned over 40 and included film roles In Praise of Older Women, David O. Russell’s Spanking the Monkey and Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter.

However, it was her TV roles which brought her the most fame. She played Madeline,  the  executive strategist, second-in-command, chief tactician, and psychologist for Section One, in the TV series La Femme Nikita for four seasons from 1997 to 2001. She also played CTU Director Erin Driscoll during the Fox’s series 24‘s  fourth season in 2005.

It was during the second season of La Femme Nikita, that Watson was diagnosed with lymphoma. She underwent chemotherapy, and the producers worked around her treatment and limited her appearances. She wore wigs during a number of episodes, and sported a short hairdo during Season 3 when her hair was growing back.

In a 1999 interview she was asked how her diagnosis has changed her life:

“I just try and slow down much more. And try and be aware of every day. And knowing that at any time life ends. My appreciation for who is in my life and what I have accomplished in my life makes me feel really good. And I don’t ever want to take any of that for granted… So I’ve tried to slow down and really try and smell the roses. Some people don’t get well and we’re all going to die sometime. So I guess just having it in my face made me realize that I want to try and be fulfilled every day as much as possible.”

The specific kind of lymphoma that Watson had was not mentioned, so we’ll talk about what are the difference between Hodgkin’s and Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.

What is lymphoma?

Lymphoma is a cancer that begins in cells of the immune system, specifically from cells called lymphocytes.

There are two types of lymphocytes in the blood- B-cells and T-cells, each with a different job within the immune system. B-cells normally help protect the body against bacteria or viruses by making proteins called antibodies. The antibodies attach to the bacteria or viruses and attract other immune system cells that surround and digest the antibody-coated germs.

There are several types of T-cells, each with a specialized job. Some normal T-cells help protect the body against “foreign invaders”- viruses, fungi,and some bacteria. T-cells can also release substances called cytokines that attract certain other types of white blood cells, which then digest the infected cells. T-cells are also thought to destroy some types of cancer cells, as well as the cells of transplanted organs. Some types of T-cells play a role in either boosting or slowing the activity of other immune system cells.

There are two basic categories of lymphomas. One kind is Hodgkin lymphoma (HL), which is marked by the presence of a specific type of cancer cell called the Reed-Sternberg cell. The other category is non-Hodgkin lymphomas (NHL), which includes a large, diverse group of cancers arising from the many different types of lymphocytes. Non-Hodgkin lymphomas can be further divided into cancers that have an indolent (slow-growing) course and those that have an aggressive (fast-growing) course. These subtypes behave and respond to treatment differently.

Lymphoma is the most common blood cancer in the United States and is estimated to represent approximately 5 percent of all new cancers diagnosed in the United States in 2014. Nearly 71,000 new cases of NHL and nearly 9,200 new cases of Hodgkin lymphoma are estimated for 2014.

How are Hodgkin’s and Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma Different?

Both Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma has similar symptoms, such as:

  • painless swelling of the lymph nodes, especially in the neck, armpits, or groin
  • fever and chills
  • night sweats
  • weight loss
  • loss of appetite
  • itchy skin

reed-sternberg cellThey are different in the following ways:

1.  They are primarily distinguished by looking at the cancer cells under a microscope. Hodgkin’s lymphoma will have enlarged cells called Reed-Sternberg cells. These are not present in NHL.

2.  NHL is more common than Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It accounts for 85% of those with lymphoma, vs. 15% for HL.

3. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma typically occurs in younger patients, age 15 to 24, and older patients over 60. Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is rare in young patients. Most patients are over 60 years old.

4. HL typically starts in the lymph nodes in the upper body, such as neck, underarms and chestand it can spread to other lymph node groups, the lungs, spleen, and bone marrow. NHL can start in a variety of locations depending on the type of cancer and cells affected.

5.  The incidence of HL has been declining in recent years, whereas the incidence of NHL has been increasing.

6. HL tends to progress in an orderly fashion between lymph node groups, and is often caught earlier than NHL, which are less orderly, sometimes more aggressive, and are more likely to be caught in advanced stages.

7.  Both radiation therapy and various chemotherapeutic drugs have been used with success in the treatment of both Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. However, HL is considered one of the most treatable cancers with survival rates over 90%. NHL has a very variable survival rate, depending on the kind of cells involved. The average 5-year survival rate for NHL is about 70%.

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

1 Comment

  1. Andrew

    April 19, 2015 at 1:32 am

    While B cell lymphoma was what ended up killing her, that is not the whole story.

    Alberta Watson struggled for decades (since 1984) with the chronic illness known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. Interestingly enough, that illness is associated with lymphoma, according to a very large epidemiological study conducted by the NIH. (Published as Chang et al, Cancer 2012 doi: 10.1002/cncr.27612)

    Her achievements are that much more impressive knowing that she struggled with illness all that time.

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