Years ago - my OB/GYN told me – “Cancel your Christmas plans - you’re not going anywhere but the hospital. You have cervical cancer.” I entered a surreal world that had a flood of questions flash through my mind. How could I have this? Am I going to die? Why is this happening to me? I asked him what my prognosis was and he responded, “I wouldn’t go lighting any candles if I were you but you need to have surgery right away.” More salt sprinkled into the wound with, “and since you don’t have insurance, I need $1,500 down this week or go to County Hospital.” This wealthy Beverly Hills doctor also informed me that I could’ve caught this much earlier but my yearly pap had been misread. I felt terrorized and traumatized – even demeaned - all at once in a town where I knew few and had no family…yet.
"Cervical cancer as recently reported by United Nations through the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a statement that the current cervical cancer that attacks women is ranked top among the types of cancers that cause death of women in the world."
My surgery was a success and not many years later - the doctors had insisted that I was a high risk for either a still born birth – a preemie or a miscarriage – my husband and I were gifted with a healthy baby boy in December of 1990. I am very grateful for that arrival.
It is Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM) and there is not one person that I’ve met in life who hasn’t had or been affected by someone having had cancer. We’ve come a long way in many cancer procedures but we have miles to go in others.
I was privileged to meet the wonderful comedic actress of ‘Bosom Buddies’ fame – Wendie Jo Sperber. It's the only time I have cried when interviewing someone. Wendie Jo had been given a clean bill of health from her bout with breast cancer that began in 1998 and started her own support group – weSPARK in Sherman Oaks - creating an alternative for anyone affected by cancer - including those who were cancer free – in 2001. Not long afterwards Sperber was informed that her breast cancer had returned - spreading throughout her body – now making her a stage 4 cancer patient. Wendie Jo now needed weSPARK as much as any future or current guest and she dug in – as only Wendie Jo could - with enthusiastic determination to leave a legacy behind. We spoke as mothers, thespians and as she termed it – “Cancer Warriors” during our first of many meetings to help weSPARK get the local attention it needed to grow and to survive as a non-for-profit organization.
weSPARK has thrived despite losing its creator in November of 2005 - thanks to countless volunteers – staff – celebrities and non-celebs who openly share about their experiences with cancer and the dedication and love of the friendship between Wendie Jo and Tom Hanks and other members of the cast. Telma Hopkins - Peter Scolari and Ms. Holland Taylor were frequent performers at weSPARK events and still are.
Wendie Jo wanted the word - cancer - out of the closet! weSPARK took off with a succession of articles and Nancy Allen - head program director - took me aside to say my continued articles about weSPARK had brought in a slew of new “guests”. My then 12 year-old boy was allowed to join the teen improvisation group which helped him just as he lost his first love – a little red haired girl at that.
There isn’t a day that passes without Wendie Jo drifting through my mind – she enriched my life and my boy’s and countless others. Just as I started to have an amazing girlfriend – she was taken but ready to go on our last meeting at her Sherman Oaks home. We talked about life – our kids and cancer. Wendie looked at me and simply said, “I want to die.” It was a beautiful and precious moment of trust between two women that I’ll never forget. I assured her that her dream would come true – that weSPARK would not only live on but thrive. She smiled at me.
Her son, Spencer spoke at her funeral and got a huge reception with these words: “Cancer sucks.”
My son - Dylan - became active alongside me in many organizations and causes – cancer was always one of the constants whether it was Camp Ronald McDonald - Children’s Hospital - Cancer Awareness Day in Griffith Park or an event for weSPARK. Dylan was able to be the first to visit a friend who discovered he had leg cancer at age 12 when he was hit by a baseball where the tumor hid behind the bone and he took a young 17 year-old Robyn Speer around Universal Studios as she awaited to receive a new liver to replace the cancerous one hiding behind her surgical stitches. Cancer – I have heard your name so many times.
As weSPARK grew it came to my attention that Wendie Jo had been to the unveiling of the women’s breast cancer stamp ceremony in Los Angeles – making it the first fundraising stamp to direct monies to both funding and research both here and abroad. This stamp was spear-headed by Congressional Gold Medal nominee – Dr. Ernie Bodai from Sacramento. I met Ernie - who also is a prostate cancer survivor – the year Wendie Jo died. The two speakers that hands down were the best I’ve witnessed in their humor – passion and advocacy about their causes in common would never meet but I told Wendie Jo about my doctor friend -Ernie Bodai and Bodai certainly learned of Sperber.
Cancer will call your name or someone that you know – I've lost three relatives to various cancers but have seen many without hope still alive despite their initial prognosis.
Dr. Ernie Bodai told me that he realized how he could make an international difference by having a stamp created for Breast Cancer one day when he was paying his bills. The stamp would move through many hands and always be a visible reminder to raise awareness – funds and research.
Single-handedly this doctor kept returning to Washington to bring the birth of the first fundraising stamp to fruition and after much struggle and persistence he succeeded. Dr. Bodai still desires the male prostate stamp in our Postal Service.
When my son had his first art show – A Reason to Believe - at age 19 that encompassed cancer, education and racism - Dr. Bodai flew in at his own cost and brought a hundred free books that he authored and signed for patrons at the show. One is I Flunked My Mammogram! the other I Flunked My PSA! A stencil of Dr. Bodai with the stamp and postal service behind him hangs in his son's home.
"The Breast Cancer Research semipostal was issued on July 29, 1998, at a first day ceremony held at the White House. It was the first semipostal in U.S. history. A semipostal stamp program is a fundraising program undertaken by the U.S. Postal service (USPS). As of September, 2012 - the stamp has raised over $75.8 million for breast cancer research. By law, 70 percent of the net amount raised is given to the National Institutes of Health and 30 percent is given to the Medical Research Program at the Department of Defense. Designed by Ethel Kessler of Bethesda, MD, the stamp features the phrases, "Fund the Fight" and "Find a Cure" and an illustration of a mythical "goddess of the hunt" by Whitney Sherman of Baltimore."
Dr. Bodai has also developed Breast Cancer Survival clinics. (see video with Olivia Newton-John)
My Christmas cards and bills will go out again with the fundraising stamp. I know my money is being used effectively and gives that constant visible reminder that cancer can call any of our names at any time.
I thank you Wendie Jo Sperber – I miss you and your words: “With Elephant Hugs!” and Dr. Ernie Bodai - for allowing us into your lives and being a part of ours.