I went public about my cancer soon after my diagnosis, because I wanted women to know that cancer does not discriminate. It does not care if you are in a hit Broadway show or movie.
In 2013, I was at the top of my professional game. I was a lead performer in the hit Broadway show Motown: The Musical, playing singing legend Diana Ross, which earned me a Tony Award nomination. Performing eight shows a week is exhausting, but I had no problem meeting the physical demands of the show. I was fit and healthy—or so I thought.
In the fall of that year, I had my routine annual gynecologic exam and discovered that a small cyst on my right ovary diagnosed several years ago had tripled in size to over 6 cm. My doctor said that the cyst should be removed, because there was a good chance it could rupture, and I agreed. There was no sense of alarm in my doctor’s voice as he gave me the information. I was vigilant about getting my annual physical exams, I was young—just 34—and I didn’t have any symptoms of a serious illness.
Beating the Odds
When the pathology report came back 10 days later with a diagnosis of clear cell ovarian carcinoma, I froze. Cancer was the last thing on my radar. There was no history of ovarian cancer in my family, so the news was totally unexpected and devastating.
When I met with a gynecologic oncologist for a consultation, he didn’t mince words. “Until I examine you and explore the situation, I can’t give you an exact prognosis,” he said. “But most people with this cancer have less than a 50% chance of survival.”
I know how fortunate I am to have beaten those odds.
I had a unilateral salpingo-oophorectomy to remove my right ovary and right fallopian tube. My cancer was labeled “stage IA–aggressive” on the pathology report, followed by six rounds of a chemotherapy regimen of carboplatin and paclitaxel. Throughout the whole process, my oncologist was my saving grace. He encouraged open dialogue and asked me to tell him about any problems I was having.
In April 2014, my oncologist declared me cancer-free.
Being Proactive in Your Health Care
Although the cancer caused me to leave the Broadway show, it has not ended my acting career, and my professional goals are the same. However, my life has taken a different turn.
Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to inspire people and give them hope. At first, I accomplished those goals through my singing and acting career. Now, cancer has given me another venue. I went public about my cancer soon after my diagnosis, because I wanted women to know that cancer does not discriminate. It does not care if you are in a hit Broadway show or movie. Cancer can happen to anyone.
Since then, I’ve become a spokesperson for the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition and travel across the country to be a voice for other women struggling with this disease. As a young African American woman, I feel it is important to share my story to educate and encourage others to fight against ovarian cancer.
I also want to empower young women to know their bodies and to be proactive in their health care. But most of all, I want women not to be afraid if they suspect something is wrong. I tell women, “To know your body, know your risk.” It’s better to fight than to have fear.
Learning to Surrender
Having cancer has taught me important lessons, and I believe it has made me a better actress and person. I’m more grounded and have different experiences I can now bring to my craft. Cancer has also taught me to surrender to the things I cannot control and to accept help from friends and colleagues when I need it. And that has been a blessing.
Every day is a new experience now, and I’m more flexible in how I perceive challenges in my life. I’ve learned that what may look like a negative can turn out to be something greater than I ever could have imagined. ■
Valisia LeKae lives in New York.