Actress Jessica St. Clair Opens Up About Her Breast Cancer Diagnosis
Posted on May 9, 2017, 3:00 PM
I have to be honest, guys. I didn’t want to write this. Who wants to bum everyone out with the news I had breast cancer when we could be binge-watching The Great British Baking Show where the biggest drama is whether or not the layers of your trifle are spongy enough. But then this Easter Sunday, which happened to fall on the year anniversary of my finishing chemo, I brought my toddler daughter Bebe to church, and this beautiful gospel choir sang Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which just about SLAYED me. And the sermon was about how that’s what we need to be for each other—bridges over troubled water. And I thought that if sharing this helps somebody going through breast cancer end up with the perfect set of boobs (more on that later), keep all (or most) of their hair through chemo, avoid getting chemo-related nerve damage in their hands and feet, or even just feel less alone, then sharing my story would be worth it. But just in case the following gets too intense, I’d like to suggest we all have “Episode 3: The Eclair” queued up.
On September 15, 2015, I was diagnosed with stage 2b estrogen positive breast cancer. I was 38 years old, with no family history (that I knew of at the time). I was feeding my daughter Cheerios the morning I found it. I used to joke that since breastfeeding my boobs looked like an old athletic sock with some loose change at the bottom, so when I felt a lump the size of a marble I knew something was terribly wrong. My OB/GYN didn’t want me to wait to be seen by somebody at one of the larger hospitals, so she referred me to Dr. Leslie Memsic at the Bedford Breast Center. I knew the moment I walked through those doors that I was in the right place. Dr. Memsic, a feisty spitfire who talks a mile a minute and gives hard hugs, was the former Assistant Director of Surgery at Cedars-Sinai before she left to open a clinic where she could provide women with more personalized care. In fact, in my first appointment, she gave me her cell phone number and told me to call her, day or night. And I did. She, along with my genius plastic surgeon, Dr. Lisa Cassileth, perform a great way of doing a mastectomy called a “one-step reconstruction,” in which, in one surgery, the breast tissue is removed and the new implants are put in. For women who don’t have medical restrictions, it allows them to go to sleep with breasts and wake up with their new breasts intact. It does away with the need for the multiple surgeries, painful tissue expanders or visible scarring that’s involved in a traditional mastectomy. Ten days after my one-step reconstruction, I was on the beach with my daughter. No joke. Oh, and I got to keep my nipples which made me really happy because apparently my nipples are really important to me. I am so proud of my new boobs that I take them out whenever I can. I cannot tell you how many women I have pulled into closets in order to show them the results, just so that they can get the word out about this approach to surgery. All I’m saying is: if we bump into each other and there’s a closet nearby, be prepared to see my new boobs.
Once I recovered from surgery, I underwent sixteen rounds of chemo (four sessions of AC, twelve of Taxol). To say I was afraid of chemo is the understatement of the year. My biggest fear was that I would be too sick to care for my then two-year-old daughter, who was too young to understand what I was going through. My oncologist, Dr. Philomena McAndrew at Cedars-Sinai (she’s Oprah’s go-to for all things breast cancer— enough said), along with Dr. Memsic and Dr. Cassileth, came to the rescue. They shared what they call their “cancer hacks”—things their patients had experimented with to minimize the side effects of chemo. So, I enlisted the help of my husband and my best friend / comedy wife, Lennon Parham, to try every single one, as well as a few I cooked up myself, with the mission of being able to report back to other women what worked and what didn’t. And here’s the amazing thing—every single hack we tried actually worked. Every chemo session, they would pack me in ice, as Lennon puts it, like a “choice piece of holiday meat.” They distracted me from the intense pain of the cold by reading aloud from old Oprah magazines and feeding me Teddy Grahams and Cheez-Its, while I froze my scalp for eight hours using “cold caps” to keep my hair from falling out (I only lost 30 percent). They wrapped ice packs on my eyes like a mummy in order to freeze my eyebrows and eyelashes (I didn’t lose a single one). I wore frozen booties and mittens to avoid getting neuropathy in my hands and feet. I took supplements my doctor recommended for the neuropathy and to strengthen my hair. Twice a week I went to an acupuncturist. I changed my diet to include more fiber, fish and vegetables (and about a pound of dark chocolate a day) with the help of a cancer nutritionist. I tried to walk at least twenty minutes a day. Did I still feel like I’d been run over by a Mack Truck? Absolutely. It’s chemo, after all—they don’t call it the Red Devil for nothing. And I lost enough hair that when the new hair started to grow in, I resembled Dog the Bounty Hunter. But all these “chemo hacks” made it possible for me to fake it enough that my daughter never knew I was sick, so she was never afraid. And for that, I am eternally grateful.
Shortly after I finished chemo, but during my 12 weeks of radiation, Lennon and I returned to work on the third season of the show we write, produce and star in, Playing House. Again, we would have much rather sat on our couches and watched every season of The Great British Baking Show but we knew that we had to tell the story of what we’d just been through. So we went for it. In the new season, my character, Emma, gets diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoes the exact treatment I did. We were worried about bringing such serious subject matter to a comedy show, but we’ve always written what we’ve lived. And our real story is that with the help of her best friend, and the people who love her, my character is able to get through the treatment and actually emerge somehow happier and more fulfilled than she was before she was diagnosed. We hope that by sharing my experience—our experience, Lennon and I—that somebody who is going through this process or helping their loved one through it might feel less alone, and might even have some better information for their cancer care. Because that’s really all that matters at the end of the day, right? That we try and be that bridge for each other. Cause this is some straight-up troubled water, am I right? Now, if you’ll excuse me, there are some trifles about to be assembled and that sponge isn’t gonna make itself ...
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