Breast Cancer Survivor

Edie Falco finds strength in struggle

Edie Falco had the world by the tail when her doctor walked in and told her she had stage I breast cancer.

It was September of 2003 and the award-winning actress was in the teeth of filming another season of the wildly popular series The Sopranos. Her life was moving at a breakneck pace and she didn’t have time to slow down. Too many people were depending on her. So the news that she had cancer came as a shock.

“I sort of blacked out when my doctor told me the news,” said Falco, who is currently starring in Showtime’s Nurse Jackie. “I was in a panic, to tell you the truth, I couldn’t walk or breathe.

“I come from a family with a lot of cancer — not breast cancer mind you, but cancer nonetheless — and when I heard that word, all I could think was ‘funeral.’ I just went numb, and then I moved on to thinking, ‘How am I going to get through this?’”

Falco said that along with the shock and fear, she also felt confused and extremely angry. She’d raised a red flag a year earlier, and the clinic hadn’t found the cancer.

“In ’02, I felt what — to me — felt like a lump; and when it didn’t go away, I went into the clinic and had a mammogram,” Falco said. “What they told me was that women my age have denser breast tissue, and that it was nothing. So I let it go.”

 “So when I felt it again, I went in and got a biopsy and it came back positive,” she said. “The clinic was so scared to tell me that they made my regular doctor do it. So I’m sitting there, and while all of the other things are swirling around in my head, I’m also thinking, ‘I have had this thing for a year before anyone caught it?’ I’ll admit that I’m still trying to let go of my grudge.”

Working Through It
Falco was filming the 2003 season of The Sopranos when she began her treatment. A private person, she said that at the time, it was very important to her to keep her diagnosis a secret from her family and especially from the cast and crew that she worked with on a daily basis.

“Everyone would have been very sympathetic and well-meaning and very worried about me and, I don’t know, I just couldn’t handle that, so I just carried on and I fared very well,” she said. “It was toward the end of the season — when I started my treatments — and the crew was working 18-hour days and they looked so much worse than I did that I was far more concerned about them than I was with me. And frankly, that’s the way I like it.”

Falco said that while she was extremely scared, and didn’t feel good, the normalcy of suiting up every day and becoming Carmela Soprano was a lifeline. Her friend, Ilene Landress, who was also the show’s producer, scheduled Falco’s work around her treatments.

“I was worried about my hair falling out, but they made me a wig and the hair and makeup people kept my secret and it went really well,” she said. “I needed to keep a lot of the people at work and my family at a distance because I just couldn’t bear the thought of them worrying about me when I didn’t have any answers. And I’m glad that I waited.”

“I will never forget telling my father,” she said. “He was sitting at the table, and I’d been fine for a year or so, and I started by saying, ‘I just want you to know that I went through this and I’m going to be fine and all the tests are good.’ And I looked up and I thought he was going to vomit. It was awful, which is why I waited until I knew how it would turn out to tell them.”

After undergoing a lumpectomy, and getting a second opinion on which treatment options were best, Falco said she agreed to the traditional regimen of chemotherapy and radiation.

“Both doctors said it was a very aggressive cancer and that that particular course of treatment was going to be the best way to fight it,” she said. “So that’s how it went. I think you go out and find who’s best and then you trust them.”

Falco said that while many of her friends were looking at every kind of treatment under the sun for her, once she settled on a doctor, she was going to do as she was told.

“If I look online and second-guess everything, I’m going to go nuts,” she said. “If this is about acting, I know what I’m doing, but this man went to school for a long time and studied hard, and I wasn’t going to question his advice.“

Frankly, I had a desperate need to trust him and that is what I did. If it wasn’t necessary for me to know a detail, that worked perfectly for me. Everyone has to take their own path with something like this.”

In addition to finding the right doctor, Falco said she made another important decision before starting treatment. “I also decided that I wanted to freeze my eggs,” she said. “I had been thinking about having kids, and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do that after going through the radiation and chemo, so I went ahead and had my eggs extracted. I didn’t end up going that route to have children, but I needed to have the choice at the time and I think it helped me to cross one more unknown off my list.”

Today, Falco is a mother of two adopted children — Anderson and Macy.

Moving Along
Falco said her life returned to a relative sort of normal after she successfully completed chemotherapy and radiation treatment in mid-2004.

“It’s funny, you have all of these grand ideas about how you’re going to do things differently when you’re first diagnosed,” she said. “It’s like landing in Oz — everything’s all in color. But it wasn’t long before I was complaining about all of the same stuff again.”

“Then again, it changed me in ways I’m not even sure of,” she said. “After you sit across from your doctor and hear that you’ve got cancer — it changes you at a cellular level. It is pretty deep when you think that your life can be cut short.”

Falco began a five-year course of Nolvadex (tamoxifen) soon after the initial stage of her treatment was over. Tamoxifen is an antiestrogen drug therapy that works to block the growth of breast cancer cells by inhibiting the activity of estrogen in the breast. This may stop the growth of some breast tumors that need estrogen to grow. She said her doctors followed the tamoxifen with a two-year course of the drug Aromasin (exemestane). According to the National Institues of Health, exemestane is an aromatase inhibitor used to treat early breast cancer in women who have experienced menopause and who have already been treated with tamoxifen for two to three years. The medication is also used to treat women whose breast cancer has worsened while they were taking tamoxifen. Just like tamoxifen, exemestane decreases estrogen production.

“The post-treatment meds don’t leave you feeling great, but they are fine,” she said. “The side effects can be pretty bad, but the drugs keep you from getting cancer again, so you just have to move along.”

Falco said she also took good care of herself — eating right and running. She said that running served her well during chemo, giving her a sense of strength and calm. Today, she continues to exercise regularly.

“I don’t run much anymore,” she said. “Instead, I do the elliptical machine, go to the gym and take a dance class. I’ve been switching it up.”

Finding Strength
Falco said one of the things her battle with cancer has made her realize is how strong she is. “

As a kid, I tended toward phobias, and cancer was a big one for me,” she said. “I had a family member die and it was pretty awful.

“But then, here I was all these years later and I walked through it, step-by-step. It was terrifying, but I walked through what was once an insurmountable fear. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn that about myself.”

It takes a brave person to fight for their own life, Falco said.

“Anything you can do to reduce your fear — yoga, funny movies, hanging out with your friends — go out and do it,” she said. “I look back and think about all my anxiety and I wish I could go back and walk myself through it, just remind myself to breathe.”


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