Tony Award winner and Dancing with the Stars alum Marissa Jaret Winokur doesn’t let anything – not even cancer – stand in the way of her dreams.
by Laura Shipp
Marissa Jaret Winokur has always been a girl with a big personality and big dreams. High on her list of goals in life – making it big as an actress and one day becoming a mom. But at 27, just as she was starting to gain her footing on Broadway, her dreams were derailed when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Marissa, who admits to having lived a charmed life, was naturally shocked when a routine Pap test led to a cancer diagnosis. She tells Coping, “I lived in a little one-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood, and I remember it seemed like the walls were caving in. I felt like I was being suffocated by the room.”
She kept her diagnosis private, only telling close family and friends. She was reading for the part of Tracy Turnblad in the musical Hairspray, but she wasn’t guaranteed the role and didn’t want to give producers any reason not to hire her. “When you get a diagnosis of cancer,” Marissa says, “people assume you aren’t going to be healthy enough to do a show, so I didn’t want anyone to know about my diagnosis because I knew I was going to be able to do it. I wasn’t going to let cancer get me down.”
She quietly underwent a hysterectomy to remove the tumor, along with her uterus. Luckily, her ovaries were spared and no further treatment was necessary. Her doctors gave her the all clear, and she soon move to New York City to begin work on Hairspray, which opened on Broadway on August 18, 2002.
My goal, my dream was right in front of me, and I was not going to miss it!
“Part of what got me through this horrible situation was having something to look forward to,” Marissa says, “My goal, my dream was right in front of me, and I was not going to miss it!”
She continued to keep mum about her diagnosis, not wanting it to be a distraction for her cast mates or the audience. And though cancer was never far from her mind, Marissa shined in the lead role. Hairspray went on to win eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical and a Best Leading Actress win for Marissa. “Winning the Tony was my lifelong goal,” Marissa says. “I had planned on doing that by the time I was 80, not by the time I was 30. That wasn’t even part of my dreams or wishes during cancer. Just getting to opening night was a dream come true.”
Six years later, Marissa realized another lifelong dream when her son Zev Isaac Miller was born on July 22, 2008, “It was completely a miracle of modern science,” Marissa says.
Eight years ago when Marissa underwent a hysterectomy, she didn’t know if she’d ever be able to have children of her own. Then close friends introduced her to the concept of surrogacy. Marissa admits that at first the idea seemed a little out there. “I felt like I was in a sci-fi movie because I had no idea what could be done. I had no idea they were able to retrieve eggs.”
After learning more about the process, Marissa and her husband, television writer and producer Judah Miller, decided to go for it. Since she retained her ovaries after her hysterectomy, doctors were able to retrieve her eggs, which they fertilized with Judah’s sperm. And thanks to a surrogate who agreed to carry their child. Marissa and Judah now have a son who is 100 perfect biologically theirs. “He is everything,” Marissa says of her miracle boy. “I have always wanted to be a mom, and it was devastating when I thought that I wasn’t going to be able to have a baby. But just as devastating as that was, motherhood is ten times better than I ever thought it would be.”
Though she once kept it as a close secret, Marissa now speaks openly about surviving cervical cancer. “I feel like it would be irresponsible of me not to talk about it,” she says. “My story is one of hope I want young women who are faced with a hysterectomy to know that they can have children. They do have options. There are many different ways to become a mom.”
Marissa has recently partnered with Luv’s “Take a Stand” campaign urging mothers to take a stand for what is important to them. Find out more at LuvsDiapers.com
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2009.