Pancreatic Cancer Survivor

The Facts of Life with Cancer

Fans of all ages remember her as “Mrs. Garrett,” the charming and charismatic housemother on hit TV shows “The Facts of Life” and “Diff’rent Strokes.” The talented actress won the hearts of many as she helped her girls navigate the trials and tribulations of teenage drama, no matter how complicated the issue. From drinking and drugs to death and divorce, you could always count on “Mrs. G.” to teach a valuable lesson or find a silver lining.

After being diagnosed with Stage III pancreatic cancer, Charlotte Rae continues to provide hope and comfort to others. The cancer-free actress shares how early detection and positive thinking helped in her battle with the same deadly disease that claimed the life of her mother, uncle, and older sister Beverly.

 

Pancreatic cancer is often found after it has already progressed, making it one of the hardest types of cancer to treat. Because of her celebrity status and family history with the disease, Charlotte was invited to her hometown of Milwaukee by the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network to help raise awareness about the importance of early detection.

“The best way to survive any cancer is to catch the disease early during a yearly checkup,” she said. “It’s so important to get an endoscopic ultrasound of the pancreas, especially if you’ve had family members affected by this disease.”

Like many others, she had no symptoms prior to her cancer diagnosis.

“My younger sister Mimi came with me to be tested, and while her results came back fine, doctors found two cysts on my pancreas,” Charlotte said, remembering how she asked her doctors to test the cysts immediately.

“The biopsy showed they were benign, but I was strongly encouraged to have another checkup in six months,” she said.

Instead, she let a year go by after she had a bad experience with a doctor in California.

“He kept calling me ‘Mrs. Garrett’ and was laughing and telling jokes,” she said. “I didn't like his attitude.”

However, Charlotte admitted that she was foolish for leaving without getting tested.

“I should have bitten the bullet and had him check me out anyway,” she said.

She waited exactly a year for that follow-up visit, returning to the same doctors she had trusted in Milwaukee. But this time, she was told she had full-blown cancer. It was July 2009, and she was 83 years old.

“It was contained Stage III but it was growing fast,” she said.

Thankfully, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network provided her with a list of experienced surgeons to contact.

“My son Larry helped me with the ‘auditions’ and we quickly found a wonderful surgeon whom we trusted and later learned to love,” she said. “When he said that the cancer hadn’t metastasized and that it was operable, I was so profoundly grateful to receive that news.”

However, she admitted she was still nervous about the surgery until she received some good advice from a great friend.

“Opera singer Marilyn Horne had been through pancreatic cancer before me and suggested that I try something that had worked for her to help put me in a positive mindset before the surgery,” she said.

Horne introduced her to a hypnotherapist, who gave her tremendous relief and comfort as she prepared for surgery and the chemotherapy to follow.

“We worked on visualization and disintegrating fear with positive imagery,” she said. “I’m not extremely religious, but I am spiritual, and I highly recommend trying anything you can to overcome your fear of treatment – whether surgery, chemo or radiation. What worked for me was the power of God.”

Fear is a common emotion for the thousands of patients each year diagnosed with this disease, but Charlotte said she found that hope and faith gave her comfort.

“Look, I was in my 80s at the time; they could have told me to go home and get my papers in order,” she said. “But they didn’t. I’m very grateful that they didn’t throw me away and that they honored me.”

Charlotte’s surgeon removed the tail of her pancreas in August 2009, which was followed by six months of chemotherapy treatments that concluded on her 84th birthday. Her treatment included gemcitabine (Gemzar) and docetaxel (Taxotere) injections taken with capecitabine (Xeloda), an oral medication. Treatment would sometimes make her nauseated, but she was given other medications that helped. Even losing her hair wasn’t much of a problem, once she found a couple of great wigs.

“There were good days and there were bad days, but I was OK with that,” she said.

Charlotte is now busier than ever with her career, her family and her advocacy work through the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. She is also working on writing her memoir, “The Facts of My Life,” with her son, and she’s excited to spend time with her two “talented and terrific grandchildren.”

“I used to be 5 feet 2-1/2 inches; now I’m 4 feet 7 inches—but, gratefully, I’m still above ground!” she said.

In fact, she just finished filming a small role in a movie called “Ricki and the Flash,” starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline.

“I love to act, that’s what I do, really; I’m an actress,” she said. “I had such a great time making that movie with everybody!”

Charlotte’s advice to others as they begin treatment?

“Get help and don’t stop searching until you find a team of doctors you trust,” she said. “If someone says your cancer isn’t curable, don’t stop with just that doctor. Keep searching for a solution. I’m extremely grateful to be here today, and I’m sending out powerful prayers to all of you.”

 

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