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Actor Rita Wilson Reflects on Surviving Cancer, COVID

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 17, 2020

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In March of 2020, Rita Wilson and her husband, Tom Hanks, announced they’d tested positive for COVID-19, making them among the first celebrities to go public with the diagnosis. Their decision to come forward was heroic in its own way, given the fear associated with the virus. The revelation removed some of the stigma surrounding COVID-19, and emboldened other celebrities to reveal their own diagnoses.

On March 29, shortly after she’d recovered, Wilson posted an Instagram message in which she wrote, “I am so thankful for my health.”

As it happened, the date marked another milestone -- 5 years had passed since her medical team declared her breast cancer-free. In the same post, she expressed gratitude for “the doctors, nurses, friends and family who got me through that time.”

Wilson was originally diagnosed with lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), abnormal cells in her breast’s milk-producing glands, called lobules. LCIS isn’t cancer, but it increases the risk for invasive breast cancer. The LCIS eventually turned into pleomorphic lobular carcinoma in situ (PLCIS), a form doctors believe is more likely to turn into cancer than LCIS. After Wilson had lumpectomies (surgery to remove the abnormal tissue), her doctor told her she didn’t have cancer, but “I had a gut feeling,” she says.

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“Some fraction of patients who are diagnosed with LCIS will eventually go on to develop an actual cancer, either from that original site or somewhere else in the breast,” says V.K. Gadi, MD, PhD, professor and director of Medical Oncology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. (He did not treat Wilson.)

It turned out Wilson was one of them. When she got a second opinion, she learned that her PLCIS had progressed to invasive lobular carcinoma.

Suddenly, she saw that cancer was no longer a disease that only happened to other people. “Once you have something happen to you, you realize that you’re just a statistic,” she says. “There’s nothing that protects you.”

Surviving Cancer

The months following Wilson’s cancer diagnosis were filled with a series of critical tasks needed to plan and carry out her treatment. Therapy for invasive lobular carcinoma can involve a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. Wilson opted for a double mastectomy, followed by breast reconstruction surgery.

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Staying focused on the process of surviving left her little time to dwell on the enormity of having cancer. “Once I had the permanent implants put in and the surgery went well, then I could start feeling a bit more relaxed,” she says.

Mindfulness meditation helped her get through that dark time. She made it a permanent part of her post-cancer lifestyle, along with other healthy habits like swimming, walking, and practicing yoga. She began to eat less red meat, replacing it with more fish and grains. And she cut back on alcohol, which some studies suggest can increase the risk for breast cancer recurrence.

“These things are now a part of my life. They’re not going to change,” she says. “Once you’ve had a health crisis, you don’t want to mess around with it.”

“Throw Me A Party”

Before Wilson was pronounced cancer-free and could begin to feel a sense of relief, she had moments of anxiety and fear. The uncertainty of not knowing whether her cancer would cooperate with treatment, or if she’d survive her surgery, led to a discussion Wilson never expected to have in her 50s.

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“I was having a conversation with my husband, which was about if I should go before him, certain things that I’d like to have happen. One of them was, ‘I’d like you to throw me a party. And I want to have all of my friends there,’” she recalls. “I wanted it to be something that allowed people to celebrate my life.”

She captured her request in the song, “Throw Me a Party,” featured on her 2019 album, Halfway to Home. One line goes, “I always lived like there wasn’t enough time.” Cancer brought a keen awareness that time is a resource in limited supply.

“The choices that I made after that were that I only wanted to do the things that I really love … and do the work that I feel is really meaningful,” she says.

"What Do I Want?"

The discovery of her life’s meaning came relatively late. Her acting career had already spanned more than 30 years, with memorable roles in films like Sleepless in Seattle, Runaway Bride, and Jingle All The Way. In 2005, Wilson had a soul-searching moment when she finally asked herself, “What do I want?”

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The impetus for the question came from an interview with Oprah Winfrey she’d read in the Los Angeles Times. The multimedia icon attributed her success to her ability to find clarity about her purpose in life. “I ask people what it is they want,” Winfrey said in the article, “and you would be amazed at how few of them know. … If you focus on what you want, things clear up. If you don’t, you get stuck in this muddled, fuzzy place.”

Wilson had been so caught up with her acting career and family (she has two sons with Hanks), that she hadn’t even considered what she wanted. But once she stopped to think about it, the answer was clear.

“It was music,” she says.

“I feel like people have things inside them that they want, that are yearnings … something that they feel is a true part of who they are. For me that was always music, but I had become an actor at such a young age and that took off, and I never really looked back.”

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In 2012, she released an album of cover songs called AM/FM, but she secretly yearned to be a singer-songwriter. Without the ability to read music or play an instrument fluently, Wilson figured it was out of the question. Then, a chance meeting with producer/songwriter Kara DioGuardi landed her a mentor. “Kara asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I’d give anything to write a song like you.’ She said, ‘Well, why can’t you do that?’” DioGuardi offered to write the first two songs with her.

Her first original album, the country/pop-inspired Rita Wilson, came out in 2016. It included collabo-rations with a roster of top songwriters/producers (Kristian Bush of Sugarland, Richard Marx, and the Warren Brothers, among others). She followed it up in 2018 with Bigger Picture.

COVID Days

Wilson now counts herself among the members of two survivor communities -- breast cancer and COVID-19. She and her husband fell ill with the virus and recovered in Queensland, Australia, where Hanks had been filming a Baz Luhrmann movie about the life of Elvis Presley, and Wilson had performed a concert at the Sydney Opera House.

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It’s an experience she doesn’t want to relive. “It was about 10 days of very bad [symptoms]. I had a relatively high fever. I was extremely nauseous. I had vertigo. I had stomach issues, achiness, and a headache that would not go away. I lost taste and smell. All of these things, combined with this unbelievable shivering,” she says. “I never want to get it again.”

If there could be any upside to her two-weeklong quarantine in Australia, it was the surprising collaboration that came out of it. On March 22 of last year, Wilson posted an Instagram video of herself rapping along with Naughty By Nature’s 1992 classic, “Hip Hop Hooray.” She’d learned the tongue twister of a song for the 2019 film Boy Genius, a process that she compares to “learning Shakespeare, but if you’ve never spoken English.”

COVID-19 had left her feeling a little “fuzzy.” She recorded herself performing the song to see if her mind was still limber enough to remember the lyrics. “I thought, maybe I’ll post it to let people know I’m doing OK,” she says. “And it became crazy viral.”

The hip-hop trio loved it so much that they teamed up with Wilson on a remix. All profits from the song go to support the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund, which helps musicians affected by the coronavirus pandemic. “It was so much fun!” she says. “They invited me to do it live with them when they go back on tour. You know I’m going to do that!”

Giving Back

Wilson found another way to put a positive spin on her COVID-19 ordeal. Both she and Hanks plan to donate their plasma (the liquid portion of their blood) to UCLA (as of our interview date), in the hope that the antibodies their immune systems produced against the virus might help others who get sick. Researchers there are studying immune responses against the virus, as well as the effectiveness of convalescent plasma therapy, an experimental treatment for severe COVID-19.

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“The hope is that the antiviral antibodies in the plasma could reduce the effects of the virus, assist in recovery, and hopefully reduce mortality,” says Otto Yang, MD, professor of medicine and associate chief of infectious diseases at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine.

Yang’s team is looking at the level of antibodies in people who’ve been infected, and how quickly those antibodies drop over time. Theoretically, antibodies could provide protection against future infection with the virus. He appreciates the awareness Wilson and Hanks have brought to UCLA’s research efforts. “They’ve been supportive and have publicized this project and a couple of others,” he says.

Wilson says she and her husband were more than happy to help. “We knew that it would be incredibly helpful to people,” she says.

Taking Nothing for Granted

Living through two major health scares has left Wilson with a profound sense of gratitude. She has a lot to be thankful for -- not only good health, but also several musical projects she’s launched since getting over COVID-19.

In 2020, she released the songs “When This Is Over,” a collaboration with country artists Jimmie Allen and the Oak Ridge Boys, “What I Would Say,” about dealing with a loved one’s addiction, and “Everybody Cries” for the war drama The Outpost, which has been generating some Oscar buzz. She’s also collaborated with country music legend Dolly Parton, as well as Monica, Jordin Sparks, and Sara Evans, on the single “PINK.” A portion of the proceeds will support Susan G. Komen’s mission to save lives from breast cancer.

“What I learned was that each day is so precious and so valuable, and life is so fragile. I really do not want to live one day not telling the people I love that I love them, not finding joy in everything I do, and not without a huge sense of gratitude that I get to be creative, that I get to write music, and produce movies, and act, and do the things that I love to do,” she says. “It’s really about not taking anything for granted. Not one thing.”

Lobular Carcinoma

Rita Wilson was diagnosed with lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), and later with invasive lobular carcinoma. V.K. Gadi, MD, PhD, explains what that means:

  • LCIS is a precancerous condition in which abnormal cells form in the milk-producing glands (lobules) of the breasts.
  • People with LCIS are seven to 11 times more likely to develop invasive cancer in either breast.
  • LCIS is hard to feel. Because it hides in normal breast tissue, it doesn’t form a lump. Doctors monitor their patients who are diagnosed with LCIS with regular mammograms, and possibly MRI.
  • Treatment depends on the extent of the disease. Mastectomy is one option. Bilateral (double) mastectomy can be done to treat the cancer, prevent cancer in the other breast, or make reconstructive surgery easier. Some people get hormone therapy afterward to prevent their cancer from returning.
  • The prognosis for lobular cancer is generally good. If it’s well-managed, it doesn’t come back very often.

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Sources

SOURCES:

Grammy.com: “MusiCares COVID-19 Relief.”

HuffPost: “Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson Return to U.S. Following Australia Coronavirus Quarantine.”

IMDb: “Rita Wilson.”

Instagram: “Rita Wilson.”

Los Angeles Times: “O to a higher power.”

Mayo Clinic: “Invasive Lobular Carcinoma.” “Lobular Carcinoma in Situ.”

NBC News: “Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson Test Positive for Coronavirus.”

Otto Yang, MD, professor of medicine, associate chief of infectious diseases, UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine.

People: “Rita Wilson Has Breast Cancer, Undergoes Double Mastectomy and Reconstructive Surgery.”

Rolling Stone: “Rita Wilson Announces New Album, Spring Tour.”

Susan G. Komen: “Alcohol and Breast Cancer Survival.” “Lobular Carcinoma in Situ (LCIS).”

The Hollywood Reporter: “Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson Contracted Coronavirus in U.S., Australian Officials Say.”

The New York Times: “Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson are Released From the Hospital.”

Variety: “Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson Test Positive for Coronavirus.”

V.K. Gadi, MD, PhD, professor and director, Medical Oncology, University of Illinois at Chicago.

YouTube: “Rita Wilson & Naughty By Nature – Hip Hop Hooray.” “The Question I Almost Didn’t Ask and How It Changed My Life.”

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