Interview: General Hospital's Finola Hughes Talks Anna Polycythemia Vera Diagnosis

Anna's life will never be the same.
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Anna's life will never be the same.
Finola Hughes

Finola Hughes

Covert operative Anna Devane has seen her share of challenges since debuting on ABC Daytime's General Hospital back in 1985. Whether it's taking on an obsessed, rogue spy with a penchant for faking deaths, or losing the love of her life, Anna has steadfastly endured as one of soap opera's most beloved heroines. 

This past week on GH, Anna learned of a new adversary that just might make our favorite super spy have to throw out her playbook — she was diagnosed with polycythemia vera (PV), a rare blood cancer. Though there are treatments for PV, there is no cure. Daytime Confidential spoke with Daytime Emmy Award-winning actress Finola Hughes about her powerful new storyline and her work with Voices of MPN to raise awareness about PV and other myeloproliferative neoplasms. 

Daytime Confidential: Anna Devane has done battle with many a lethal foe during her 30-odd years in fictional Port Charles, New York on ABC's General Hospital. This week, she learned she's suffering from polycythemia vera (PV), a rare blood cancer. As a career crime-fighter, will Anna want to approach this diagnosis like she would one of her cases?

Finola Hughes: Anna is such a strong woman, a fighter, and she thinks of herself as invincible. Now diagnosed with polycythemia vera (PV), a chronic and progressive rare blood cancer, she is being forced to reflect and lean on others. It’s not always easy to be vulnerable and we see her character resist – but fortunately, Anna has a strong support group and her family to turn to a she moves on with her new normal.

DC: How did Finola the actress react when you first learned of this game-changing plot twist?

FH: At first, I had all kinds of questions because I wasn’t familiar with this rare blood cancer, but after I learned more about it, I felt honored to take on this responsibility and did research so that I could authentically represent the illness.

DC:  I understand you've spent a considerable amount of time with real-life PV patients in preparation for this storyline. How well does that inform your acting choices and the storytelling?

FH: I was extremely grateful to meet with an inspiriting woman who had been diagnosed with PV. I asked her about her symptoms and her feelings when she was diagnosed. She told me about how she brushed off her initial symptoms of headaches and dizziness. PV is part of a group of rare blood cancers known as myeloproliferative neoplasms, or MPNs, and the symptoms can be relatively common which can sometimes make MPNs difficult to diagnose. She also told me that after she was diagnosed with PV, she never met another patient with an MPN for almost 10 years. Through Anna’s story, I hope we can shed light on these rare diseases, and help people understand the importance of advocating for your health, working with your doctor and connecting with a support network. I also hope that people who are diagnosed with this rare blood cancer know that they are not alone, and recognize that there is a community of support within reach. The patient that I spoke with directed me to a website with resources for patients — VoicesofMPN.com — where I found a bunch of information and stories which helped me prepare for this role.

DC: This isn't the first time Anna has had to face the reality of a chronic disease. Her daughter Robin (Kimberly McCullough) has HIV. In scenes that aired this week, Anna apologized to Robin for lashing out after learning of her PV diagnosis. What was it like to film those moments with McCullough?

FH: I always love scenes with Kimberly; we’ve worked together for so long, she’s like family to me now. She’s so talented; working with her is always such a joy, even when the storyline is a difficult one, as it is in this case. Anna realizes how serious her illness must be when Robin shows up by her side. Kimberly has always been a point of vulnerability for Anna and now living with this chronic, progressive, rare blood cancer will be as well.

DC: In the 90's, General Hospital was known for telling powerful medical-based stories. In addition to HIV/AIDS, the soap explored organ donation, breast cancer and more. Are you excited to see soaps return to more topical storytelling?

FH: General Hospital is an excellent platform for raising awareness and I was honored that Anna was selected to carry such a meaningful message to our audience. Our show enters people’s homes on a daily basis and provides 40 minutes of adventure, romance, familial stories which people can relate to and we also tackle social issues. It is always so rewarding to see a storyline resonate with the audience like we’ve seen with my character’s PV diagnosis. Many fans have reached out to me on Twitter and expressed such gratitude towards this storyline, explaining that they have never seen PV talked about in this way before. I would encourage everyone interested in this important storyline to visit www.voicesofmpn.com to learn more about PV and MPNs. One in 10 people are living with a rare disease in the U.S. and I hope that on this Rare Disease Day, February 28, people take the opportunity to reach out a hand to all those living with a rare disease to show their support.

DC: There is no cure for PV and treatment can require patients to receive routine phlebotomy for the rest of their lives. Are you at all worried about what dealing with a chronic disease could mean for Anna's long-term viability on screen?

FH: There is no cure for PV, it is a chronic and progressive disease, but it can be managed and Anna can live it. Anna is now living with this new normal, this new vulnerability and it will be exciting to watch it unfold as she continues as a strong, independent crime-fighter.

DC: In soaps and in real-life, medical diagnoses often happen at inopportune times. While dealing with her diagnosis, Anna is also contending with the return of old adversaries like Valentin Cassadine (James Patrick Stuart) and Olivia Jerome (Tonja Walker). How will the WSB agent juggle keeping Port Charles safe from lethal enemies with managing her newfound health issues?

FH: Anna, like all women, always has so many balls in the air to juggle — family, love, work, health — it’s amazing how much we all take on. We will have to watch this play out as she lives with a chronic disease and manages all the other challenges that come her way as she strives to keep Port Charles safe.

Photo credit: Voices of MPN