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