Surviving Cancer with a Little "Will and Grace"
by Julie McKenna
Shelley Morrison plays the sardonic housekeeper, Rosario, on NBC’s Emmy Award-winning sitcom, Will & Grace, who is the only character who can equal the acid tongue of her employer, Karen. But despite this seemingly volatile relationship, they are friends. While Shelley is more genial than Rosario, she is just as tough, having survived lung and breast cancer only a year apart.
“I had a lumpectomy in 1988 and then another one the following year,” Shelley recalls. “Then in 1998 they discovered a tumor that my doctors felt was aggressive. They thought they might be able to take care of it with another lumpectomy and radiation, but they couldn’t be sure.” Shelley chose to have a modified radical mastectomy to be on the safe side.
The following year Shelley’s doctors discovered she had lung cancer that was unrelated to her breast cancer. She had surgery to have the upper third of her right lung removed. Fortunately, she has not needed chemotherapy or radiation for her breast or lung cancer. “My doctors have assured me that they got it all,” says Shelley. “Every three months I go in for CT scans and we just stay on top of it.”
Shelley attributes her quick recovery to the support of friends, family, and especially her husband, Walter Dominguez. “Walter has been my rock. He is an extraordinary man,” Shelley says. “He and I follow the Native American tradition of being spiritual and having a lot of faith. Walter has a wonderful saying: ‘Every day is a gift. That’s why they call it the present.’”
The cast and crew of Will & Grace have also been supportive of Shelley through both of her surgeries. “After my first surgery everybody on the show wanted to hug me and I had to say, ‘No, no! I still have stitches!’” Shelley jokes. “Now I only do half the shows because of my reduced stamina, which works well for me. They have me for three or four more years on my contract, so I’ll probably be doing the show in a walker!”
Shelley didn’t let her cancer slow her down, however. “I’m a very active person,” says Shelley. “They told me I couldn’t drive for months after the mastectomy and two weeks later, I was driving. After this last surgery, they told me I would have to wait three months before I could drive and I was driving a month later.”
The cast and crew of Will & Grace have supported Shelley through both of her surgeries.
Shelley knows that having strong values and a positive attitude contributed to her quick recovery. “A big part of healing has to do with your belief structure,” Shelley explains. “I pray morning, noon, and night. Sometimes during the day as I am walking my dogs, I’ll say, ‘Excuse me, God. Got a minute?’”
When Shelley was first diagnosed with breast cancer, she was terrified. But working through her emotions got her to a peaceful place. “If you want to scream, cry, yell, curse, then do it! Get it out of your system,” she advises. “And then just sit down with your family and talk about it. Keep saying the word ‘cancer’ until you diffuse it.”
While cancer was a big hurdle in her life, Shelley has a positive perspective about it. “A lot of good has come from having cancer – it has made my life fuller and each day is richer. I feel lucky because I’m so blessed to have a wonderful family and great doctors,” Shelley explains. “And when you really stop and think, there are so many more horrific things that are happening to people.”
Now Shelley enjoys bringing her focus back to her life as an actor and as a community activist with her husband. They have been honored by the city of Los Angeles for their work with the homeless, and now Shelley lobbies for government assistance to provide low-income people with access to tests for early cancer detection.
For now, Shelley is back on the set of Will & Grace as Rosario, exchanging witty insults with Karen. Some of Rosario’s attitude on the show comes from Shelley’s tenacious outlook on life. “Not much dust settles on me,” laughs Shelley. “I’m a tough old broad!”
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2003.