How were your mother and aunts diagnosed?
Both were diagnosed by getting their mammograms, which is a real testament to staying on top of our health.
How did they share the news with you?
My mom told me about my aunt, so when I talked to her I already knew. My mom told me herself, and I remember it was during the Tony announcements for the year I was doing the Broadway show The Apple Tree, and I didn't get nominated. I was a little sad by that, and my mom called me that day and told me she had breast cancer, and it gave me quick perspective on what's important. What's the one question people did not ask her or you that you wish they had?
I think it's more an action than words. It's interesting sometimes when you get sick, you see that people sometimes don't know how to react and they stop coming around — when really you sometimes just want a quick five-minute visit to see someone's face. I know when I've been homebound before with an injury, just seeing Alan Cumming show up for five seconds cheered me up or Kathy Najimy — these are buddies that came. It's interesting when some people don't come by. You know it's just because they don't know how to act, but the truth is you don't have to act — just be yourself and bring your joy to that person.
What are your thoughts on the pink ribbon campaign?
I love that there is a symbol so widely known to represent breast cancer. I think you can go pretty much anywhere in the world and know what that means. And that's when you know that you're really raising awareness, which is awesome.
How can people get involved and actually help?
I think the Internet is the thing in a lot of ways, because you can find out a lot of information that maybe you didn't know before. I know I'm working with the company Hologic to get the word out about the Genius 3D Mammogram, which is a very, very, very highly technical machine that is an even better mammogram detector that is now available to us. I just want to encourage everyone to find a doctor that carries it, and if your insurance company doesn't cover it then people should call and make them aware that they would like it and that it should be covered by insurance. Because it detects more invasive cancer by up to 41%, and that to me is a big, big step in the right direction.
What do you think is the most important aspect of women's health that needs more attention?
I think that women forget to put themselves and their health first. We are busy taking care of everybody else, and "I'll get to it, I'll get to it, I'll get to it" is a real problem. So just remember to keep your yearly check-ups going and to do your self breast exams. And, mainly, if something doesn't feel right with your body, to listen to your body.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer 15 years ago. I found the lump and went to have it tested. I kept the diagnosis private. I told only my closest friends and family. I chose to do this because I wanted to continue to work without any extra attention. I found that if I was treated normally, it was easier for me to just carry on normally. There were plenty of places for me to process what I was going through — therapy, support meetings, friends — it wasn't something I wanted to discuss with people I didn't know. Until I was ready. Once my treatment was over, I was happy to discuss anything. I found that people were reluctant to ask. But it always felt like the elephant on the coffee table. I suddenly felt like an insider on one of the most fearful and mysterious circumstances to affect our population, and I wanted to share what I'd learned. But I found that people were worried I'd be put off or offended.
I really haven't struggled with the changes in my physical appearance. I have never defined myself physically. My body is such a small part of who I think I am. And, as we all know, if I accept it, chances are people follow suit. And the love I share with people in my life transcends our physical selves. I believe femininity is a state of mind, not of body.
There are many people to thank for the help I received during this period. My doctors Larry Norton and Sheldon Feldman, all the nurses and hospital workers. But there was one particular woman — she was a secretary at one of the doctor's offices. I never learned her name. She must have seen my worried expression. She came over and told me that she herself had just finished treatment. Her hair was just growing back. She said she understood how I felt, that she had been there and that it would be ok. She reached me and calmed me like no one else had yet been able to.
Exercise turned out to be very helpful in keeping my stress levels down while I was going through treatment. The chemo included a steroid, so I had strength and stamina I was unaccustomed to. I was running five miles a day in record time.
I know how frightening it is to see a doctor when you suspect a potential health problem. And how much easier it is to ignore it. But there might be no more important time to be brave. Make the appointment. Chances are nothing is wrong. But finding out early could very literally be the difference between life and death.
My mother was diagnosed the first time after noticing changes to her breast. Her nipple had inverted, which can be a sign, and in her case, was a sign that breast cancer was present. Her initial diagnosis was in 2000, and, after a single mastectomy of the left breast, she went into chemo and radiation in order to treat it. The cancer was classified as Stage I, and after six months of treatment she was cleared and was for all intent free of cancer. It had not spread to the lymph nodes. In October 2008 she was at a routine cancer check up that she had every six months, and they found a place in her right breast which had not been removed in the first mastectomy. This time the cancer, which was a new cancer, was much more aggressive and she was classified as a Stage III C. It had spread to her bones and was moving fast. She immediately began treatment again and continued with chemotherapy and radiation for the next four years until her death in 2012.
Over the course of both of her cancer fights, my mother's spirit always remained strong. She was a fighter. Even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, she never complained. She never asked, "Why me?" She never felt like a victim. It's no secret that she was my best friend and because of that there was nothing she didn't share with me when it came to her fight. The highs, the lows and the in-betweens.
Coping with the stress wasn't an issue while my mom was fighting cancer. It was the pain of losing her, and the depression that took hold after she died that was the hardest. In retrospect, it was the first time in my life where I truly suffered from depression and it was overwhelming. It was contrasted at a time of great success for me, but it was a daily struggle just to stay upright. Cancer affects everyone. The person with cancer and everyone who loves that person. I guess that is the thing that I wish more people understood how everyone is affected. I wasn't at my best during that time. There was a never a day during my entire tenure in NYC from 2002-12 that I wasn't worried about my mother and her fight against cancer. "Will it come back?" turned to, "How long do we have before the end?" to, "Wow am I supposed to live without this person who has meant the world to me?" It was incredibly difficult to watch someone you love so deeply struggle and suffer so much. I was difficult to be around in the months leading up to and the months following her death. I was devastated. I wish that people had a better understanding of that, but I didn't until I experienced it and I don't wish that on anyone.
I think that October, the pink ribbons, Race For the Cure, and all of the other support systems that exist to help people in their cancer fights are wonderful, but I also think that more has to be done. Bringing attention to the cause is great and creates tremendous financial opportunities, but the real work lies in research, technological advances and motivation to actually make a difference. You can get involved in numerous outreach programs and charitable organizations to help in the fight. A simple Google search will set you off in the right direction.
I hope I see a cure in my day. I hold that hope very dear. The hope that no mother, wife, daughter, aunt or friend will have to experience what my family did and the hope that one day breast cancer can be added to the list of diseases whose asses were kicked by the will and perseverance of the human race. F*ck cancer.