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Actress Marcia Cross Has a New Role: Cancer Advocate

The Desperate Housewives star is helping lead the fight against cancer in marches, through her advocacy, and with her own family.

When a Loved One Gets Cancer continued...

Still, "An odd competence took over me immediately," she says from her home in Los Angeles, where she is currently resting -- if one can "rest" with two toddlers in tow -- during a hiatus from her weekly Desperate Housewives series. "When you become the caregiver to your spouse … there's no time to wallow. You have to be on the ball. For the first six months, I managed with a mix of denial and just total competence, dealing with what had to be done every day. … Only now am I going through a posttraumatic-stress reaction, crying a lot, dealing with my own fears, thinking about how hard it was to watch him suffer. Only now do I find I'm tender trying to talk about it."

Cross's experience isn't at all surprising, says Terri Ades, APRN-BC, AOCN, director of cancer information at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. "What happens typically with a cancer diagnosis is that the 'machine' starts up very quickly. Everything goes into motion -- the treatment, the patient's needs -- at a very rapid pace. There is no time to stop and think."

Marcia Cross: Cancer Caregiver

Many caretakers assume immediate and sometimes complete responsibility for their loved ones when illness strikes, from seeking the right doctors to scheduling appointments and monitoring medications. Cross and Mahoney worked as a team. "We formed a great partnership with Tom's doctors before his treatment began," she says. "He had time to choose the where, the when, and the how. It was his decision."

Caregivers, according to Cross, should keep their eyes trained on the big picture of cancer protocols -- and all medical procedures, for that matter. "Our doctors were so kind and caring, I just can't say enough about them. But doctors are trained to specialize; Western medicine teaches them to look at the disease, or the single body part … but as a caretaker you see the whole body in action, you know every aspect of the treatment, and you know if something's been overlooked."

When it comes to marriage, especially when vows of "in sickness and in health" are tested, the actress maintains, "It's important to remember that there's a 'we,' there's a 'him,' and there's a 'you.' And you can't completely ignore your own needs. Sometimes you have no choice. But I knew I'd gone way too long -- we got the diagnosis [last] Thanksgiving -- so I decided June would be my month to finally focus on myself, or at least try."

The actress surrounded herself with girlfriends -- "female friends are where women find our nourishment" -- and while she made it to only a single yoga class, she took a family vacation, got a massage, and tried her best to relax. "It was about internally shifting my focus," she says. "I blocked myself off from extra responsibility."

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