Charlotte Rae: A Warrior

Charlotte Rae

First, my mother and uncle died of pancreatic cancer. And then my older sister, Beverly in 1998. Shortly after she died, and with concern of my being genetically pre-disposed to this terrible disease, I returned to my home town of Milwaukee where medical professionals would look for any indication of the cancer. After an endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) of the pancreas, I was relieved that no evidence was discovered.

Flash forward to June 2008. Dr. Joseph Geenan, Head of Gastroenterology at St. Luke’s Hospital asked if I would come to Milwaukee to help promote awareness to the early detection of pancreatic cancer. In conjunction with Pan Can Action Network and Aurora Healthcare, they wanted to use my celebrity to bring attention to pancreatic cancer risk factors and in-particular the importance of detailed testing for those with a family history of pancreatic cancer.

Of course I was glad to offer my assistance in hopes that it could lead to lives saved and a stronger public awareness. While in Milwaukee my younger sister, Mimi and I both had an endoscopic ultrasound. Mimi’s was clean. My ultrasound showed a cyst on my pancreas. I encouraged the doctors to have it surgically removed. The biopsy indicated the cyst was benign but such cysts are frequently are pre-cancerous.

Before returning home to Los Angeles, the doctor expressed the importance of follow-up tests within six months and I was given the name of a doctor that would perform the endoscopic ultrasound. I did not like the doctor so I foolishly I never did the six-month follow-up and let it slide to exactly one-year.

Still concerned, I returned to Milwaukee for another endoscopic ultrasound. It was bad news. I had pancreatic cancer but the medical folks felt they had found it at an early stage when it is most treatable.

I immediately returned to Los Angeles to begin my search for an accomplished pancreatic cancer surgeon that would give me the greatest confidence. I began my search for a pancreatic cancer surgeon with the assistance of Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. I met with a wonderful surgeon, Dr. Singh at St. John’s hospital who read all of the reports and concluded that my cancer had not metastasized (spread). Since it was still localized within the pancreas, it was operable.

My gastroenterologist, Dr. Marvin Derezin at the UCLA Medical Center strongly insisted that I meet with Dr. Howard Reber, a surgeon at UCLA. My son, Larry Strauss and I met with Dr. Reber and after “auditioning” him, we both concluded that he was the one to perform surgery. On August 14, 2009, the tail of my pancreas was removed.

I had a lot of positive support before and after surgery from a friend that had survived esophageal cancer, and a hypnotherapist, Cheryl O’Neil, who helped me enormously to envision a positive process and successful outcome.

Following surgery I was referred to Dr. William Isacoff, an oncologist at UCLA for six months of chemotherapy. My last treatment was on my 84th birthday, April 22, 2010. I continue to have check-ups every 2-3 months and after three scans, everything shows I am cancer-free. I am profoundly grateful.

I am especially grateful to my surgeon, Dr. Reber. Because of my age he did not merely send me home to get my personal things in order. He had confidence that even as an 84 year-old that I had the strength, tenacity not only to survive surgery but to deal with the rigors of chemo.

With expert medical attention and support of friends and loved ones, I am still here. No pain, no nausea, and with profound gratitude to all those involved…..Including of course my main man God.

I encourage everyone to be aware of pancreatic cancer risk factors and its symptoms. It is particularly crucial that those with a family history of pancreatic cancer to be checked and closely monitored. Over 25% of pancreatic cancer occurs with patients that are predisposed genetically. The risks among that group increase from 2 to 100 times versus the population absent of a family history of pancreatic cancer.

It is through foundations such as Seena Magowitz that provide the private funding for clinical trials and energize people like Dr. Daniel Von Hoff to fast-track to an eventual cure of this dreadful disease.

Editors Notes:
Charlotte Rae is a prolific character actress, comedienne, and singer on Broadway and television. Best known for her portrayal of “Edna Garrett” on the sitcoms of “Diff’rent Strokes” and “The Facts of Life” through 1986. Charlotte received a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy in 1982. She also appeared in the two Facts of Life television movies: “The Facts of Life Goes to Paris” and “The Facts of Life Reunion”. Charlotte also was the voice of Nanny in the cartoon “101 Dalmations: The Series”.

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