She’s One ‘Groovy’ Breast Cancer Survivor
by Julie McKenna
Best known for her role as “Frau Farbissina,” Dr. Evil’s diabolic henchwoman and secret lover in the Austin Powers films, Mindy Sterling is one of today’s most talented improvisational actors. Her energy and enthusiasm contribute to her roles as outlandish comic characters in films such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Drop Dead Gorgeous, and most recently in the WB series On the Spot. In 1999, Mindy found that her energy and positive attitude would prove to serve her offscreen as well when she discovered she had breast cancer.
At one of Mindy’s regular checkups, a mammogram identified precancerous cells for which she immediately underwent radiation treatments. At the time, she was filming the second Austin Powers movie, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and fortunately she was able to work her treatments around busy filming schedules. “Mike Myers and the producers were great because they would let me come in later if I had an early call because I usually had radiation treatments first thing in the morning,” Mindy says.
Six months later, Mindy was diagnosed with breast cancer when her radiologist discovered a lump in her other breast. “I just remember getting that horrible, horrible call and my doctor saying, ‘Well, you’ve got cancer.’ There is no great way of telling someone that, and when I heard it over the phone I couldn’t even move,” recalls Mindy. “All I kept thinking was, I’m going to die, I’m going to die. So it was pretty hard.”
At the time of her second diagnosis, Mindy was interviewing for a part in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. “I remember going in for my interview with Ron Howard and it was a couple of days right before I was going to do chemo,” says Mindy. “I was so nervous because I was determined to not let anyone find out I had cancer. But it went well and I got the job.” Mindy played the part of Clarnella, one of the “Whos” that helped raise the baby Grinch.
Throughout her treatments she also continued her weekly performances at The Groundlings Theatre, where she has been doing improv for 15 years. She had no qualms about going on stage, despite the fact that she had lost her hair due to chemotherapy treatments and she was wearing a wig. “I remember telling one of the other actors, ‘OK, just don’t touch my hair because it’s not mine,’” Mindy says with a laugh. “We were joking about it!”
“I’ll tell you what though,” continues Mindy. “Working saved my life. That all kept me busy, distracted, and excited about my life because things were going so well for me professionally. So that kept me from feeling sorry for myself, feeling bad, feeling lonely; I just got through it.”
Mindy also had great support from her husband, Brian, and her then-four-year-old son, Max. “Brian was kind of the Rock of Gibraltar through the whole thing,” recalls Mindy. “He had to really take care of Max and let him know that I was going to be OK. Max would kiss my bald head to ‘help make my hair grow.’ I mostly just wanted Max to be OK with everything and not let it affect him too much. I was more concerned with that than anything else.”
During the time when Mindy was undergoing treatments, her father was also battling lung cancer. She found this incredibly difficult as her father eventually lost his battle with cancer while she was recovering.
It was shortly after she was diagnosed that Mindy met Wendie Jo Sperber, a breast cancer survivor and founder of weSPARK, a support center for people affected by cancer. Through Wendie Jo, Mindy became involved with weSPARK and also joined a support group for breast cancer survivors. “I found it encouraging and helpful to talk to women who already had breast cancer,” says Mindy. “They told me what to expect so I didn’t feel isolated or alone.”
Mindy is now looking forward to whatever life holds for her. “I have been very blessed with a lot of great stuff in my life.” As to whether or not there will be a fourth Austin Powers film, “I don’t know, but I don’t want it to end,” Mindy says. “I had the best time doing those films.” And a lot of people had a great time watching them. Thanks, Mindy, keep on making us laugh!
Mindy is an active supporter of weSPARK (we Support, Prevention, Acceptance, Recovery, Knowledge), a support center for people affected by cancer. For more information call (818) 906-3022 or visit wespark.org.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2003.