Best known for her role as wise-cracking radio show producer Roz Doyle in the Emmy Award-winning series Fraiser, actress Peri Gilpin has lent her recognizable face and voice to the fight against sarcoma by way of The Sarcoma Foundation. After losing her mother to leimyosarcoma in 1997, Gilpin has become an advocate for raising public awareness about the condition and has also worked closely with the National Breast Cancer Coalition on issues of women’s health. Gilpin sat down with ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper for a discussion about cancer, parenting her twin girls, and her past and present work in television.
Chet Cooper: Tell me a little bit about how you first got involved with The Sarcoma Foundation.
Peri Gilpin: Years ago, I did an interview about my mother for a publication called Info magazine, and during that interview I told the reporter about my mother’s leiomyosarcoma. She had had a hysterectomy, but at the time of it the doctors didn’t even think to look for sarcoma. Later it was discovered in her spine—it had lain undiscovered for years—and because of it she lost at least two vertebrae during her first emergency surgery.
My mom battled cancer for about 15 years, and my sister was diagnosed with it last February. Anyway, I was telling the story about my mother’s leiomyosarcoma in this interview for Info, and was later contacted by a woman in New Jersey who’d said, “Your mother’s story is exactly like my mother-in-law’s story.” Then I got a phone call from The Sarcoma Foundation of America, asking me if I would be involved with their organization. And I said yes.
Everyone needs all the awareness of sarcoma they can get. Twelve thousand people get diagnosed a year. That’s too many. One percent of cancers are sarcomas, and about 15% of pediatric cancers are sarcomas.
Cooper: Sarcoma in general is still pretty rare.
Gilpin: It is, but the really good thing is that awareness of it seems to be improving. In the 25 years between my mother’s diagnosis and my sister’s diagnosis, the situation is night and day. When my sister went into the hospital with this strange thing on her spine and lost two vertebrae, just as my mom had, doctors knew to look for leiomyosarcoma, and that is what it turned out to be.
Cooper: Your sister’s reason for going into the emergency room was a growth on her spine?
Gilpin: My sister went into the hospital on Valentine’s Day in terrible pain. Her doctor—who had also been my mom’s doctor, although not my mom’s oncologist—saw something on my sister’s spine and said, “You need to go straight over and get either an MRI or a PET scan.” So she was in a hospital getting an MRI and then an ambulance rushed her over to another hospital to remove two vertebrae. My mom had gone through the same thing: checked herself in on a Friday night and said, “I just can’t take the pain.”
Cooper: She’d had pain in that area before, but nobody could identify what that was?
Gilpin: Right. And while they were preparing her for a CAT scan that night, the cancer sort of clamped down on her spinal cord. She looked right at the doctor and said, “I’m shutting down. I’m dying. I can feel everything stopping.” She said the doctors picked her up, got her on a table and took her in, and when she came out, she was short a few vertebrae.
Cooper: Was she able to walk after that?
Gilpin: Nobody had thought that she would, but she did, for 15 more years. She went through several more procedures, lost more vertebrae in her lower spine, had a rod inserted, had bone grafts done, and had many more surgeries after that. She lost a third of a lung to a tumor and went through all kinds of hell. My sister, on the other hand, was diagnosed immediately. Doctors told her, “We don’t even really recommend chemotherapy.” So she’s only gotten Themera—which is an oral form of chemo with very few side effects—and now she feels okay. There’s still a little bit of cancer left, but the Themera’s working. Her prognosis is excellent, from what everyone has said. Different from the case with Mom.
Cooper: What was the age difference between them at the time of their diagnoses?
Gilpin: Not much. My mom was 42 when she was diagnosed and my sister was 45. But I think my mom had had the sarcoma for years and years because she’d been in horrible back pain since her late thirties. I would guess that my mom was going through stuff for four years before doctors were able to diagnose it. In the case of my sister, doctors were able to diagnose quickly because of my mom’s history. They knew what to look for.
Cooper: Is there a suggestion that sarcoma is genetic?
Gilpin: No, but there aren’t studies to definitively prove one way or the other. It’s so rare, first of all, so doctors haven’t been able to study it as much as they’d like to. But I think any time there’s a mom and a daughter with the same rare sarcoma, you’ve got to wonder if there’s something going on.
Cooper: What about your profession? Did you get into acting because of your mother, of genetics, of natural ability?
Gilpin: Oh, sure, I think all of that. My mom and my dad kind of came by it naturally. They were extroverts, I would say. But I was very shy growing up. My mom always said, “I can’t believe you even want to be an actress. You don’t like anyone to look at you or talk to you.” I guess I got over all of that. I didn’t know that I wanted to do it, I just liked studying acting and I got hooked as a kid.
Cooper: What was your first hook? The theatre?
Gilpin: Yeah. I grew up in Dallas and performed at the Dallas Theatre Center when I was a little kid. We’d perform as the characters from Charlie Brown. It wasn’t that play, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, we were just performing as the characters and made up our own play.
There was a lot of theatre work in Dallas, actually. I studied at the Dallas Theatre Center for years as a child, went to classes there, and then I went to the University of Texas to study drama. I also went to school in London at the British American Dramatic Academy, which is a really wonderful school. Then I went to New York for a while and studied theater with a lot of great people there before I came out here to L.A.
Cooper: And Frasier was your big breakthrough?
Gilpin: Yeah, for sure. And I still see everyone from that show today. Jane Leeves lives two doors down from me, her child is my goddaughter, and my kids are her goddaughters and my kids are in kindergarten with her son, who I love. She’s a dear, dear friend. I just emailed David [Hyde-Pierce] yesterday, I think. John [Mahoney] and I talk all the time. Kelsey [Grammer] is a great friend. No one in my world has the same job for 11 years, so what we had together is very rare. And once you’ve been through that together, you’re family.
Cooper: What is the show you’re working on now?
Gilpin: It’s called Make It or Break It, for ABC Family. I play the mom of a young gymnast who is the best in the country—America’s most elite athlete in gymnastics. I keep waiting for my episode where I have to go in for her. (laughter) The show actually follows four girls, which is one of the fun things about it. It’s really interesting, because there’s an authentic quality to the way these young girls talk to each other, and an authentic quality in the way they talk to their parents. Parenting is so different now from when I was a kid. There seems to be a lot more involvement between parents and teens. I have six-year-old twin girls, and I know the way I raise my children is so different from how my parents raised me. My mom was a schoolteacher and a lovely mother, but she had to go to work every day. Today, somehow, I think parents are finding ways to stay really involved in their kids’ lives, even if they are at work.
Cooper: Would you say that parents are more like friends and parents simultaneously for this new generation?
Gilpin: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. But you can’t just be the kid’s friend, you know? You have to maintain that someone’s got to be in charge. You also have to trust that the child has a guide, too, inside herself, and that she can find her way with your help. It’s about mutual respect now—offering support, listening to them, loving them, all of those things.
I just did an interview for The Wall Street Journal, and in the article this child psychologist said, “With the way parents are showing their love and treating their children, why wouldn’t the kids love them back? Why would they rebel? These are about the nicest people in the world.” The best parenting comes from being involved and trying to figure out what your kid needs and caring and not going by a set of rules that applies to everyone, but operating from really individualized care for your kids. Which, strangely enough, is what we also want in our medical care.
Individualized care. I was very much involved with the National Breast Cancer Coalition [NBCC], and the reason why I was involved with them, and I love them, and the reason I’ve actually lobbied in Washington for them, is because they really teach women what’s going on within the government in respect to women’s health issues and they show us how to make our votes count. I think they got something like $50 million in defense funds as late as last year. It’s an incredible organization, incredibly well organized.
Cooper: That’s interesting, because it seems that so many health studies today are male-oriented as sort of a one-size-fits-all approach. But there are so many obvious differences between the genders, so that sort of approach seems counter-productive. My uterus is so different from yours.
Gilpin: (laughs) Exactly! I know! My mom once said, “I didn’t realize I had to make friends with my cancer. I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t here. I needed to find out everything I could about it.” So when I went and lobbied with the NBCC, that was the story that I told. I think things are improving now, though. There seems to be more comprehensive communication between the pathologist, the oncologist, the radiologist, and between all the different elements of cancer care.
Also, so much more information is available now than before, but you have to do your homework. I was on a birth control pill for a while called Yaz, and somebody told me, “People get headaches from that, there are these side effects, it’s a horrible thing.” So I went and looked Yaz up, and I realized that all of the problems people were discussing online were being generated by a class-action lawsuit. There wasn’t one medical website that had anything bad to say about Yaz. In fact, a Stanford gynecologist had written online about breaking down all the birth control methods and had shown that Yaz was right up there with any other birth control pill you could take.
That sort of thing is part of the reason why I want to do interviews like this one. You have to have known somebody who was sick for 15 years to have any full perspective on sarcoma, I think. I watched my mother go through the most horrible things, and I talk about it publicly because I hope people will become more aware and listen to their bodies and pay attention and not be afraid to go to the doctor. And if you hear a buzzword that you don’t understand, ask a professional, go online, call the doctor, look it up. Keep doing research and find out what you can. I see my health as my responsibility. I have six-year-olds. I want to be around. I don’t want to go anywhere.
Cooper: Do you have an exercise regimen?
Gilpin: I see an acupuncturist for some back pain, and I have a wonderful non-directional-force chiropractor who has really helped me a lot. I used to kickbox, but I don’t think that was too good for me, so I do a lot of walking, running, jogging, and low-impact things. Jane Leeves and I used to work out at the same gym and we would imitate each other while we exercised, but Jane’s body is in a lot better shape than mine.
Cooper: Has Make It or Break It inspired you to get your kids into gymnastics now?
Gilpin: Well, they’re both really athletic, but they’re in kindergarten so—
Cooper: So it’s too late already?
Gilpin: (laughs) No, they’ve done some gymnastics, some ballet, and they’re doing horseback riding now. That’s a lot for their age, and they’re in school from eight to three. So now we’re just doing swimming on Tuesdays and Thursdays, cheer-leading club on Friday, and horseback riding on Saturday. I want to introduce them to everything and see what they really love. To me, that’s one of the really exciting things about being a parent.