Adrienne Wilson was a depressed, suicidal teenager — until the day she received a diagnosis of stage IV liver cancer. Facing the fight of her life, Adrienne discovered just how much she wanted to live. In Better Off Bald: A Life in 147 Days, Andrea Wilson Woods chronicles her sister’s remarkable life, from the time she was born to the day she died at age fifteen.
Andrea wrote her book like a journal to take the reader inside her and Adrienne’s journey, including how she gained custody of Adrienne from their mother and how her relationship with her sister evolved over time. From Adrienne, Andrea learned how to live. Her sister squeezed more life into 147 days than most people do in a lifetime. From meeting Jay Leno to spending the day with Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction, Adrienne made every moment count.
I sat down with Andrea to learn the moment she decided to write Better Off Bald, her favorite story from the book, and the lesson she learned from Adrienne that changed her life.
What happened that made you decide to write the book? What was the exact moment when you realized these ideas needed to get out there?
I decided to write this book because I wanted people to know my sister, Adrienne, how amazing she was and to [help people] understand liver cancer. It’s one of the deadliest cancers worldwide. It’s common in other parts of the world. I wanted people to understand what causes liver cancer and how to prevent it.
I knew I needed to write this story when Adrienne was sick. In fact, one of the few things on her bucket list that she did not get to do was go on The Montel Williams Show. At that time, Montel Williams was popular, and she liked how he handled teenagers. So, she wanted to go on Montel Williams and talk about her cancer, how she got it, and what it was like. She never got the opportunity to do that. I knew deep down at some point I was going to write this story. Less than a year after Adrienne died, I decided to interview everyone who was involved with Adrienne’s care, and who knew her before she got sick. Anyone who would give me an interview, I did it. I got that information when it was still fresh in people’s minds, which was one of the best decisions I ever made when it came to researching the book.
What’s your favorite story from the book?
The first one that jumps out is when Adrienne discovered that Dave Navarro knew who she was. She decides to tell her (new) pediatric oncologist. The first thing out of her mouth when he comes in is, “DAVE Navarro KNOWS who I am!” He mimicked her tone, but not in a mocking way, and he replied, “Well, WHO is DAVE Navarro? Adrienne laughed so hard, then she told him all about Dave Navarro and who he was and how much he meant to her.
Another time, a bus boy was trying to hit on her in a nice way in a restaurant. He was raving about her bald head and he asked her why she decided to shave her head. At that point, she was tired. She didn’t want people to look at her anymore, so she looked him right in the eye and said, “I have cancer.” This poor guy, this 19-year-old boy, I thought he was going to drop all the dishes he had. He scurried off. Adrienne turned around and looked at us and said, “He won’t be back.” Then she continued sipping her soup. And it was funny. I have so many memories; I can’t choose only one.
What’s a lesson you learned from your sister and how you’ve applied this lesson in your own life? What has this lesson done for you?
The lesson I learned that I did not incorporate for a long time is that life is too short. If there are things you want to do, you need to do them no matter how scary they may seem. We are all afraid of change. Deep down, everyone’s single biggest fear is fear of change. And yet, to grow as people — physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually — we have to change. That’s the only way growth happens. For a long time, I had a fear of change. When I finally decided that I had to make some serious changes in my life, things blossomed for me.
A great example is when I decided to leave Los Angeles. I had wanted to do it for four years but hadn’t done it for many reasons, including that I was married. But I was so unhappy, and I know I was making other people around me unhappy. When I decided to leave Los Angeles, even though I had no plan whatsoever, it freed me in so many ways. Since making that move five years ago, I’ve moved forward despite the fear of change.
Many people are attributed with some version of this quote: “Courage is not the lack of fear. Courage is having the fear and moving forward anyway.” Those words have propelled me to move forward. Also, Adrienne is a big inspiration. One thing cancer does is it changes your life immediately. You’re in this constant flux of change all the time. You have to adapt. You don’t have a choice. It’s such a high-stakes environment, but there’s something to learn there. Because if we embrace change and understand that we’re going to be scared, it’s okay. The fear may not go away. If we embrace change, miraculous things happen. That’s the single biggest lesson that I learned from my sister.
I admire the way Adrienne handled her cancer journey. She had so much courage and dignity and grace and humor, and I try to live my life that way every day.