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Mindy Sterling's 'Mojo' Beats Breast Cancer

By John Morgan, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

Actress Mindy Sterling is best known for her hilarious turn as Frau in the Austin Powers movies. But it was Sterling's healthy sense of humor that she says made all the difference in beating an even worse super villain - breast cancer.

"I was getting ready to do The Grinch and had finished the Spy Who Shagged Me," recalls Sterling, who still performs with the Groundlings improv group. "Basically I went in for a routine check-up and a mammogram. I am really good about check-ups and doing the things you're supposed to do and that probably saved my life."

A few months prior Sterling had had a pre-invasive cancer in her left breast removed and treated with radiation therapy. Even so, Sterling was shocked when her mammogram revealed a lump in her right breast. A subsequent biopsy determined it was malignant.

"The cancer diagnosis hit me like a ton of bricks," Sterling says. "I got a cell phone call from my surgeon who had treated the calcifications and he said, 'You have cancer.' I guess there's no good way to really say that. I almost dropped the phone and started crying. I just sat in my car and thought, 'I'm going to die now.'"

Far too many women have been there and thought that.

In 2003, more than 211,000 American women were diagnosed with breast cancer. Annually, the disease will claim the lives of nearly 40,000 women and 400 men.

Sterling says she was a 'mess' and went home and stayed in the fetal position. But she quickly rebounded.

"Initially your first thought goes to death but you have to let it disappear because there are so many wonderful success stories," Sterling says. "I also had the Austin Powers movie to promote and most of all I'm a mom - my son needs me -- there wasn't time to focus on the negative."

"You have to keep your sense of humor," Sterling adds. "I found ways to laugh about my experience because that allowed me to think about something other than my cancer."

Mrs. Mojo Risin

Not focusing on cancer was difficult since just months before her father had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

"At first, all I heard when I saw my doctor was 'cancer,' 'chemo,' and 'hair loss,' Sterling says. "That's why I always tell people to bring someone with you because you need them there to hear the good news and remind you of it later."

Sterling's good news was the tumor in her right breast was only 2.7 centimeters, small enough so that the breast could be readily preserved by doing a lumpectomy.

The bad news was substantial.

"The cancer was invasive and many of her lymph nodes were involved," says Dr. Marilou Terpenning, who is a medical oncologist and associate clinical professor at the UCLA School of Medicine. "Ten positive lymph nodes were removed. Because this was a high number, Mindy was at greater risk for recurrence so back then I recommended very intensive chemotherapy to kill any cells that might have escaped her breast."

Terpenning recommended a new approach at the time called dose dense chemotherapy. Sterling received three drugs sequentially - adriamycin, taxol and cytoxan - for four months.

"She was very fatigued during her treatment," states Terpenning, who is in private practice in Santa Monica, California. "It was tough on her and caused hair loss but Mindy was very resilient and highly motivated. We gave her a lot of the supportive drugs like anti-nausea medications as well as drugs to support the marrow."

Sterling says chemotherapy was difficult but not as horrific as she expected.

"I heard all the stories about people being sick,' Sterling says. "But I was fine. I didn't really get sick. I did have hair loss and fatigue. So when I was tired, I slept. When I went out, I wore a wig. I kept telling myself, 'It's only temporary.' That became my mantra."

But after her chemotherapy Mindy still wasn't finished with her treatment.

"Her treatment would not have been complete for local control had she not also undergone radiation therapy," Terpenning explains. This therapy normally is carried out over a six week period, during which the patient receives daily radiation treatments to the affected breast. And because Sterling's tumor was estrogen receptor positive, Terpenning placed her on tamoxifen for five years as part of a program to prevent recurrences.

Shagadelic treatment

A breakthrough technology that was just FDA-approved last month promises to prevent even more recurrences. Microarray analysis profiles about 27 different genes to help oncologists determine more precisely the type of node negative breast cancer a woman has.

"Microarray is like doing a personality profile on a breast cancer to figure out what its attributes are and how best to treat it," Terpenning explains.  "Previously we only looked at four or five attributes in node negative patients to determine who had a higher chance for recurrence. This analysis will help us be more selective to which node negative patients we recommend chemotherapy to which women we don't."

After beating her own cancer, Sterling's father's lung cancer recurred and eventually stole his life. Having been cared for and a caregiver, Sterling shares an important lesson.

"It is so important to talk about your cancer and the feelings you have about it," says the energetic 50 year-old and devoted mom. "I only found out later that my husband was really afraid but didn't want to talk about it. I think it's really important for caregivers to also get support. I know it was harder for me taking care of my dad during his cancer than it was going through my own. You feel more helpless as a caregiver."

To help other women feel less alone and helpless, Sterling supports the WeSpark organization founded by former Bosom Buddy actress Wendie Jo Sperber. Along with attending fundraisers, Sterling also teaches an improvisation class for kids whose moms have breast cancer.

"I've learned a lot from my experience," Sterling notes. "Don't be afraid to ask people for help. I know that's a hard thing to do. The other is to talk to other women. The chemo room with all these women sitting in big luxurious chairs getting poison put in them for me was social hour. Sharing info and experiences was really helpful to me."

So was her sense of humor.

"I think that Mindy's humor provides her with very good coping skills," Terpenning says. "Some of the tolerance for cancer treatment is physical stamina but it also emotional as well and being positive helps."

"Breast cancer is scary and no one understands that like another woman who has gone through it too," Sterling states. "Don't isolate yourself. Talk about it because it is healing."

That's better advice than her alter-ego Frau shares.

"Frau couldn't care less about breast cancer," quips Sterling, falling into her trademark character. "Nothing stops Frau."

For more information on breast health, click here.

Spotlight Health is the leading creator of celebrity-featured health-issue awareness campaigns, connecting consumers with impassioned celebrities whose personal health battles can open eyes, dispel myths and change lives. Spotlight Health helps sufferers and caregivers meet the challenges of difficult health circumstances with understandable, in-depth medical information, compassionate support and the inspiration needed to make informed healthcare choices.

Created: 2/7/2004  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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