Caring for an Angel
- March 4 is International HPV Awareness Day, and Farrah Fawcett’s lifelong best friend, Alana Stewart, 75, has made it her mission to continue the star’s legacy after losing a battle with anal cancer in 2009. Fawcett, a global icon, paved the way to reduce the stigma of the disease, and Stewart has continued to raise awareness for anal cancer and HPV, which is a virus that causes 90% of anal cancers and other types of cancer.
- Fawcett did not want to go public with her cancer at first, but the news got out and fans gave her the courage to start speaking up. “She got thousands of letters from people who were so supportive and most of them with cancer themselves and they all said, you know, ‘you're an inspiration to all of us,'” Stewart recalls.
- Although some parents are not in favor of HPV vaccinations, leading experts tell SurvivorNet that children as young as 9 can receive the HPV vaccine. “One of the reasons behind giving children HPV vaccinations and not waiting until teenage or adult years is because the immune system of children is very robust. And their ability to create a lifelong immunity based on a vaccination is greater than in the adult body.”
The mother, grandmother and CEO & President of the Farrah Fawcett Foundation (whose mission is HPV research, Patient Assistance, and Awareness) shares her journey with SurvivorNet of being her beloved friend’s closest advocate throughout her courageous battle, and shares her own heartbreak, loss and inspirationshe experienced along the way.Read More
Stewart says she kept some emotions bottled up. “I didn't share a lot with anyone else … I kept it to myself. I didn't want to discuss private details about Farrah; it was tough. It was really tough,” she says.
Grief and Sickness from Her Loss
Stewart says it took her a year to recover from the initial loss of her beautiful friend of 30 years.
“I was getting sick a lot afterward. I kept getting bronchitis. Bronchitis is apparently very connected with grief and it was a tough time,” she explains.
Stewart had a support system in Fawcett’s longtime partner, Ryan O’Neal. (Fawcett and O’Neal had one child together, Redmond O’Neal, 36.)
“I had him and he had me. We would sit outside the hospital room and just talk. It was hard, we just needed each other's support,” she remembers.
One night, Stewart had gone home to get some sleep, and O’Neal called her at 6 a.m. “He said, ‘You should come,’ so I put on my clothes and went to the hospital.”
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Fawcett’s Bravery Until the End
Fawcett did not stop fighting. “We never acknowledged her dying, none of us, most of all, she never acknowledged that she was dying, she didn't want to acknowledge it because she was going to fight it,” Stewart says.
Stewart recalls telling Fawcett a week before she died that she knew how painful and tough her disease had become. Stewart asked her if she wanted to keep fighting and she said, “Yes, I want to keep fighting.”
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Fawcett’s medical team said they’d never seen anyone fight as hard as she did.
“People almost need permission to let go when it's time, but her doctor and nurses had said they'd never seen anyone this strong and fight it as hard as she did,” Stewart says.
And that's why running the foundation means so much to Stewart. “I want her legacy to live on. I want the foundation to be able to work in her name so she wouldn't die in vain,” she says. “Obviously she has a legacy, she was a superb actress, a huge celebrity and a star in so many ways, but this was her most important legacy.”
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Fawcett’s Legacy Lives On
“I think Farrah would be very proud of her namesake foundation,” Stewart says, explaining that she likes to do a little bit of everything and works on the business side of things and on the creative side. “She really wanted to accomplish things in the world of cancer. I really feel like we've been able to do that for her and we will continue to do it for her.”
After Fawcett’s death, the executors of the estate asked Stewart if she would like to run the foundation because she “knew so much about what (Fawcett) wanted because we talked about it so often.”
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Bonding During Trips to Germany for Treatment
Throughout Fawcett’s battle, Stewart accompanied her best friend to Germany six times in two years so that she could receive more advanced treatments for anal cancer.
“We went to a clinic there that I had actually been to myself, not for cancer, but for some immune problems, so I told her about it and she talked to the doctors there,” Stewart says.
Fawcett was initially treated in Los Angeles at UCLA and three months later, they told her the cancer was in remission. “She was so happy. I mean it was just the best news ever, we celebrated,” Stewart recalls.
Three months later, the cancer returned and had metastasized to her liver, where there were around seven or eight tumors.
“And she just decided to get on a plane and go [to Germany]. She just decided like that,” she says. “When we were in that first meeting with the doctor, she handed me her little camera and said 'Will you film this?' She wanted to document all her meetings. 'I want to remember everything when I get home.' And so that's how we started filming, that's how the documentary came about.” (Farrah’s Story was released in 2009.)
At the University of Frankfurt, the medical team started a new procedure for the tumors in the liver. Fawcett’s prognosis was not good. “Usually with those kind of tumors in the liver, you don't have long to live. The one thing I do think they did in Germany is they prolonged her life by a couple of years with there more cutting edge treatments,” Stewart says. “And they were difficult treatments, very, very painful. But she went though it like a trooper.”
Laughter Through Painful Times
Trips to Germany made Stewart and Fawcett even closer.
Stewart says they always made each other laugh during the most difficult times.
“Farrah would be ready to go into surgery and something crazy would happen like some looney nurse or something and she would say something and we'd start laughing,” she says.
Stewart shares one of her more lighthearted memories that occurred on a drive through the German countryside after one of Fawcett’s rough medical procedures.
“So we had a van and a driver and there was a bed set up for her in the back. She was still groggy from the medication … then out in the middle of nowhere there was a rest station. And I said, 'Oh my God Farrah, you won't believe what they have here they have a Whataburger.' Whataburger is this hamburger chain that I think originated in Texas, I think they only have them there or maybe some other states and she said, ‘I want a Whataburger!'”
Doctors had advised Fawcett to only have soup, but she insisted.
“When Farrah wanted something she wanted it. And she was not going to take no for an answer. So I asked her what she wanted on it,” Stewart recalls.
That’s when Fawcett decided she wanted to go in.
“That was one of the funniest moments, she was in her hospital gown with her coat over it we laughed about it so much. And she wolfed (the burger) down!”
Going Public with Her Cancer
Processing a recurrence after beating cancer is exceptionally hard and sometimes even more difficult to deal with than the initial diagnosis. “At first, there's the 'I'm gonna beat this,' and then there's the 'Why did this happen, why did this come back?' That was the way she was, she was ready to get back to her life and she thought that was the end of that, and then it wasn't,” Stewart says.
At first, Fawcett did not want to go public with her cancer, but it got out in the media. “She got so many letters from people who were so supportive and most of them with cancer themselves and they all said, you know, ‘you're an inspiration to all of us,'” she proudly recalls.
“She would read these letters herselfshe had thousands and thousands of them, and she really took the stigma away from anal cancer because people were embarrassed to say they had it. She got so many letters saying 'I have anal cancer and I'm embarrassed to say I have anal cancer now I say that I have the same kind of cancer that Farrah Fawcett has.' She was really brave coming out so openly with that.”
An Advocate for her Friend
Stewart, the author of My Journey with Farrah: A Story of Life, Love, and Friendship, says that going through this process with her friend for three years was a major part of her life.
“It was all I did really,” Stewart recalls. “I learned so much about it, and it's such a frightening journey for the people who love someone going through this because you don't know what to do or say. You're trying to keep your spirits up because you have to keep their spirits up no matter how you feel.”
Stewart stresses the importance of fighting for your loved one.
“You can't do it on your own, there's just no way you can do it on your own. You need someone looking to make sure the medications are right, because people make mistakes,” she says. “I remember fighting with people in Germany saying ‘No, no you can't put her here, you can't push her out in the hall and let her lie out there while she's waiting for surgery. No, no, no, that's not going to happen.'”
Courage Through Caregiving
Stewart says she grew as a person by sharing the intense journey with her brave friend.
“I was always a rather fearful person, truthfully,” she says. “And I think one of the things I learned on this whole journey that I went though with Farrah is her courage, to face something so huge and to have such courage and just not give up.”
Realizing that life could turn on a dime, Stewart learned to “cherish the people you love, enjoy your life every day and don't be afraid, don't live in fear of what's going to happen next,” which she says that she has tried to practice throughout the pandemic.
Stewart has also been a caregiver as a mother to three children; Ashley, Kimberly, Sean. Her son Ashley’s father is actor George Hamilton, Alana’s first husband. Singer Rod Stewart is father to Kimberly and Sean. “George is like my family I see him every day, he truly is my family because he's been in my life for so long, we get along fine.” As for Rod, the pair keep in touch here and there for the kids when he’s in town for family gatherings.
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Stewart says the foundation’s main focus in working with Stand Up To Cancer is to do extensive research for HPV-related cancers.
“No one really knew what HPV was unless they had had it or been diagnosed with it. Farrah was never directly diagnosed with HPV, it was not at that point called an HPV cancer, but now we know that 90% of anal cancer is caused by HPV. And 95% of cervical cancers are caused by HPV,” she says.
“One thing Farrah felt is there was not enough research into anal cancer, because they weren't treating people the same way they were years ago. No new treatments had really come about in a number of years, and that was one thing that she wanted the foundation to do and support cutting edge research and find out why there wasn't enough research involved with certain types of cancers,” Stewart says.
There are many strains of HPV, but only specific strains cause cancer. “80% of the population is very likely already infected with HPV but most people's immune systems just take care of it and eventually it disappears after a couple of years but if it doesn't disappear, and if it's around for a long time that's when it can cause cancer.”
HPV Vaccines for Our Youth
Another initiative of the foundation is educating high school kids about HPV and the potential risks. “A lot of parents are against it at that age but it's an important thing to be aware of and know about,” Stewart says. “There's so much controversy with vaccines but you've just got to educate yourself. And then make an informed decision with your doctor, but I think most doctors today do recommend the vaccine for young people. So far we raised 3 million dollars for research all HPV-related cancers.”
Leading experts say that it is a good idea to consider the vaccination for children. Not only is HPV a leading cause of anal cancer, but it’s one of the main causes of cervical cancer as well.
"HPV is present in 96% of all cervical cancers and is the leading cause of cervical cancer in the United States," Dr. Bobbie J. Rimel, gynecologic oncologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, CA, tells SurvivorNet. “Vaccination is obviously a huge part of what’s happening in our world right now,” she says, explaining that “The FDA currently has expanded the approval of HPV vaccine, specifically the Gardasil 9 vaccine, to include the widest range of possible vaccinated patients, which includes children, boys and girls, from ages 9, to now men and women up to the age of 45.”
A lot of parents question vaccinating their children since it is primarily contracted through sexual contact, but it’s fairly easy to transmit even without sexual situations. “That sexual contact doesn’t have to be vaginal intercourse with a penis. That sexual contact can be hand to genital, mouth to genital, genital to genital contact of any kind. That being said, the FDA approval allows for children as young as age nine to be vaccinated.”
Dr. Rimel also says that “one of the reasons behind giving children HPV vaccinations and not waiting until teenage or adult years is because the immune system of children is very robust. And their ability to create a lifelong immunity based on a vaccination is greater than in the adult body.”
She also says that it may prevent further infection. “HPV vaccination is the single greatest anticancer move we can make for our children today.”