Peri Gilpin - Interview [June 2010]

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.

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.

Peri Gilpin: 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.

Peri Gilpin: 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.

Sarcoma in general is still pretty rare.
Peri 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.

Your sister’s reason for going into the emergency room was a growth on her spine?
Peri 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.”

She’d had pain in that area before, but nobody could identify what that was?
Peri 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.

Was she able to walk after that?
Peri 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.

What was the age difference between them at the time of their diagnoses?
Peri 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.

Is there a suggestion that sarcoma is genetic?
Peri 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.

What about your profession? Did you get into acting because of your mother, of genetics, of natural ability?
Peri 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....“