01 Jan From Mom to Movie Star
I was diagnosed with Stage IIIB (E,P, Her2 +) breast cancer at 38 years old. With three children ages, 4, 7, and 9, my prognosis was only a 34% of surviving 7 years. With such an aggressive cancer, I wanted to focus on my health care, but the added emotional battle of losing my wild, curly locks proved to be more damaging then I realized at the time. My bargain with Heaven was, “Let me see my children get older, and I will do Your will.”
In the final scene of the movie, Living Proof, starring Harry Connick, Jr. (Dr. Denny Slamon), I had the honor of being asked to be the first woman to appear in the stadium cheering for the man who gave me my life back. A Lifetime Television film tracing the true story of a UCLA oncologist who developed the breast cancer drug Herceptin. Bottom line…being Her 2+(positive) was the problem with my diagnosis! Normal cells divide at a rate 1 to 1, my cells were dividing over 200 to 1.
My pea size cancer had already spread into half my lymph nodes, and it was rapidly headed to my vital organs. I looked at my babies, my husband, my parents, and my friends and screamed, “Why me?” 40,000 women were dying every year because of an overexpression of a protein in tumors that affected 1 out of every 4 women. When my doctor broke the news that I had the most aggressive type of cancer, I was literally shellshocked. “How was I going to leave three children without a mother?”, I asked.
Then someone explained to me that “they were not really mine anyway, and God had a plan for them too.” Whoa! It was my “Ah hah” moment as Oprah says. It was time for me to stop directing the show and dig deep into the reality that I was never in control! Every day was a mission to make my life perfect! It was all about the usual earthly pursuits of looking great,
ambition, and accomplishments. I was busy playing the Game of Life…whoever worked harder, woke up earlier, and dreamed bigger, would win! Baam!
One grim monday morning, I was hit in the back of my knees with a bat! My cancer was a game-changer. An instant redirection of purpose. “What if I didn’t make it? What kind of person would my kids remember me as? Was I even going to get into Heaven?” Deep philosophical questions I was forced to ask and my youngest wasn’t even in pre-K yet? How could this be happening to us?” My doctor told me to prepare because I probably wasn’t going to beat this. But he did say there was some promise.
He said, “There is a new drug called Herceptin that has been out for a few years. It is working for some patients, but the long term results were unknown because it hadn’t been out long enough. He said that I was at least fortunate enough that it was even available to me as it was so new, so he said, I did have hope!
I had always heard that “One person can change the world,” but I guess I never believed it, until I heard about Dr. Denny Slamon, one man who discovered a unique approach to looking at how we kill cancer cells in a tiny lab at UCLA Research Center. Genetec who had been financing his research was slow to give him money to develop his idea because breast cancer research was minimal back then. Convincing the medical world that killing cancer cells wasn’t the only way to cure cancer became his lifelong mission. His groundbreaking approach to blocking an over-expression of a protein proved genius, convincing the FDA to approve it was another.
Funny how life sometimes plays itself out like a movie…literally! Almost a year to the day after I finished my chemo and my doctor thought I might be cured, a Hollywood producer happened upon my home to scout it out for a film being shot in Louisiana. The bayou scenery didn’t fit their needs this time, but before he departed, I asked him, “So, what is the movie about that you will be filming?” He said, “Oh it’s about how one man invented a drug that cured breast cancer.” I said, “You…you mean, Herceptin?” He said, “How did you know that?” I said, “Because I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you if it weren’t for Herceptin.”
As I walked him to his car, he handed me the actual script to the movie. He said, “most of us are working on this project for free because of the cause. You are the first person I’ve heard of who actually was cured from the drug.” Please read this story of this man who saved your life. When we come back to film the movie, I will invite you to the set to maybe meet him.
You won’t believe what he went through to save your life. You have to read this!” I didn’t move from my couch for three hours. I read every word of the script, and treasured every word as I wove my story into his. The tears started to flow when I realized I was still inHigh School when he began his crusade. I was in college when he finally got the green light to pursue the trials. Phase I, I was getting married, Phase II, I was having my first child, Phase III, I was having my last child. It was almost as if the conception of this drug was tied to my entire adult life. I was rooting for him while reading the script. When he would meet roadblocks, I found my thoughts begging him, “Please don’t give up!” Everyone was telling him this could never work and it was too risky and expensive. I whispered behind my tears, “Please don’t give up, if you do, I will die!”
It became very clear to me how valuable his life’s work was. How much one man can make a difference in the world. We never know what our role here is? We must do what we feel called to do, and the universe will help us accomplish it, no matter what roadblocks come our way. The money for the groundbreaking research came because the wife of NBC executive, Brandon Tartikoff, decided to make his research her pet project. She used her clout to convince the head of Revlon, Ron Perlman to fund the research, hence the beginning of the Avon Breast Walk.
These little pieces of the puzzle that are all components of finding a cure to this disease that affects 1 out of 8 women in our lifetimes. In the movie, Dr. Slamon tells his research assistant, “if we get this drug approved, we can fill the Rose Bowl with the women it will save every two years.”
In the final scene, Harry Connick is jogging in the Rose Bowl, and women start appearing one by one filling up the stadium and we are all cheering him on. Cheering him, because he did it! He got the drug approved and literally saved our lives.” When the producer called me to come to the set on the final day of filming, I was asked to be the first women to pop up in the final scene. I was so thrilled to be in that number. Not because I was in the movie scene, but because I was in that number in real life. I was one of those 40,000! Because of his work, I was going to live!
My odds of surviving were poor at first, but my odds of bringing purpose to my life were even better. I promised a God I barely knew at that time that I would do His will if he allowed me to help my kids grow older. I woke up daily not knowing what that was, but I faithfully said the words anyway, “God, what do you want to do with me today?” In the years since I made this part of my daily vocabulary, many miracles have ensued. There are far too many to list here, but for sure the biggest one is the creation of Chemo Beanies.
The emotional battle of breast cancer that women endure during this life shattering time was far too complex for any human to really cope with well. Finding a simple solution to ease the added burden of baldness while trying to focus on our health can be far too much to handle. When my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer after me, I was determined to help take that extra pain away, by imagining a better way to go through the hair loss journey.This entire journey has taught me that each and every one of us have a purpose. Our lives, no matter how many years we are on earth, have meaning. That each day, we can wake up and choose to make a difference to others.
My life is in a constant state of fragility, but I have peace and a special grace that came out of my experience. To know that I am not in control at all, but like Dr. Slamon, I learned that each of us can make a difference in whatever small things we do. I will slip and fall, but I will keep pulling from the lessons I learned from the story of my life, and I do my best to share that knowledge with anyone who asks. I never wanted to be involved with breast cancer once I was cured, I wanted to forget that it ever happened to me.
But….God had another plan for me, and because I allowed it, I am forever entrenched in it. I am honored to be able to help women have an easier time with the emotional burden of hair loss through chemotherapy. I know that everything happens for a reason. In less than a decade, I went from “Why me?” to “Why not me?”
Chemo Beanies have been a blessing to so many women, and the “Angelle” is our best seller! Seeing a smile come to the face of a woman who is facing this challenge makes it all worth while. As scary, and as painful as my diagnosis was, I can truly say with hesitation that through it all, “Cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me.”