Valisia LeKae has a New Year's resolution that has nothing to do with weight loss, money or watching less TV.
"I will be cancer-free in 2014," she's vowed.
The budding Broadway star who played Diana Ross in the hit show "Motown the Musical" was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in late 2013. She went through surgery and this week endured the first of six planned rounds of chemotherapy.
The 34-year-old who was raised in Memphis, Tenn., and attended the University of Tennessee had to pull out of the musical and refocus her life on beating the disease, something she's done with grace and wit.
"I lost my ovary. I don't need to lose my sense of humor," she says. "I have learned to really surrender. Cancer was not something that I was expecting in my life."
About 220,000 new cases of ovarian cancer are diagnosed each year around the world, and it causes 140,000 deaths. In the United States, the National Cancer Institute estimates 22,000 new cases and 15,000 deaths each year.
LeKae was stunned by the diagnosis after undergoing surgery to remove what was believed to be a benign cyst from one of her ovaries in November. Ovarian cancer is more common among white, post-menopausal women, and LeKae says she has no family history of the disease.
"Cancer does not discriminate, regardless of if it's in your family or not," she says. "Cancer doesn't care if you're starring on Broadway or in a movie. Or that you're Angelina Jolie."
She's taken her battle public in the hope that her diagnosis can help others. LeKae urges women to see their doctor regularly. She wants them to point out things that feel abnormal and to seek out second opinions.
"Even if I can change one person's mind about either going in for their checkups — male and female — that is a huge thing," she says. "It's very important for people of all ages to be proactive. You're never too young to have a physical. It's better to fight than have fear."
Cancer came just as LeKae, who had been an understudy or swing in four other Broadway shows, was making her debut as a leading lady and had earned a Tony Award nomination. She's become a vegan who concentrates on her white blood count and endures a long list of doctor visits.
"I think God has given me a different role to play at this time," she says with a laugh. "This has sort of become the new movie that I'm in. God being the producer and my doctors being the directors. And I am the star of the show."
A classic hard-charging, highly organized type-A, LeKae has had to switch gears. "I'm finding strength in allowing others to help me. I'm so not used to it. I do not like bothering people," she says. "But I know there will be days where I won't be able to get up and make myself a meal and I'm going to have to learn to ask for help. I'm finding great peace in that, knowing that I don't have to carry this burden alone."
Dr. David Fishman, LeKae's gynecological oncologist who is director of the National Ovarian Cancer Early Detection Program at The Mount Sinai Medical Center, has been impressed by her desire to share her experience.
"That's what a hero does — help other people. She has the courage to want to make a difference and I know that she will," he said. "I'm very optimistic she's going to do very well."
While there is no effective screening yet for ovarian cancer, Fishman advises all women to learn their family's history with cancer and make it known to their health care provider. Any pelvic pain over a week needs to be discussed with a physician and Fishman hopes those talks include ovary health.
After LeKae was diagnosed with cancer, she returned to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre to tell the "Motown" cast. No email blast or press release for her: She wanted to be there, stand up and tell her castmates herself. In many ways, she wanted to comfort them.
"When someone is diagnosed with cancer, it's not just your fight. It's everybody around you. They start to go through these things in their heads — they hear 'cancer,' they think about death, they think about all these different things and it affects them emotionally."
LeKae is confident she'll soon rejoin them onstage, and when she does come back, she thinks she'll be better.
"I think this journey for me will make me a better actress. It will make me a more compassionate person and I will know how to play roles differently. I'll be even more grounded. And you know what? I also will be a little bit more fearless," she says. "Once you've faced cancer, everything else? Not so bad."
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