Crusading Against Cancer

By Ellen Byron
Reviewed by John D. Hainsworth, MD, and Roy S. Weiner, MD

In 2010, Lisa Rinna got the phone call everyone dreads. Her parents broke the news that half-sister Nancy, 58 at the time, had breast cancer.

Six months later, there was another call. In a shocking twist of fate, Lisa’s 82-year-old mother, Lois, also had been diagnosed with the disease. “I was devastated,” recalls the actress, who is best known for her roles in Days of Our Lives and Melrose Place. “I was knocked to my knees. I remember talking to my mom on the phone; she was really scared and started to cry.”

Fortunately, the cancers were detected early, thanks to regular mammograms. And both women chose the same treatment: double mastectomies to hedge their bets against recurrence. Lisa was working in New York at the time of her mom’s diagnosis and wasn’t able to travel to Oregon, where her mom and sister live. “It was really torturous because I wanted to be there,” she says. “But my sister was able to be there for my mother. That worked out beautifully, because she’d been through it herself.”

Throughout this difficult time, Lisa kept in touch with her mom and sister via phone calls and Skype. “I worried about my mom going under the knife at 82,” she says. “But the day after she had her mastectomy, she was up and ready to go home. None of the nurses could believe it.”

The road to recovery
Nancy and Lois were lucky. Their mastectomies were a success, and both women are cancer-free. Neither required chemotherapy, although Nancy will take tamoxifen, a drug used to prevent a recurrence, for five years. And neither woman opted for reconstructive surgery. “It’s funny,” says Lisa. “My sister plays golf and she was like, ‘I don’t want those things anyway. They get in the way of my swing!’ And my mom was like, ‘I’m 82; I don’t need breasts anymore.’

“They both have such a good outlook,” Lisa continues. “Everybody with this type of cancer should deal with it in the way they feel most comfortable. If you want reconstruction because you’ll feel better about yourself afterwards, then by God, do it.”

Since Lisa’s mom and sister had breast cancer, Lisa’s risk has increased threefold, according to the American Cancer Society. As the mother of two daughters—Delilah, 14, and Amelia, 11—the actress felt it was imperative to undergo testing to find out if she carried a breast cancer gene. “I don’t carry [the genes],” she says.

Working toward a cure
Spurred by her family’s ordeal, Lisa has become active in raising money for breast cancer research. In 2011, she appeared on Celebrity Apprentice and chose the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s Women’s Cancer Research Fund as her charity. Lisa has spoken about her family’s battle with cancer at many events.

Lisa juggles her volunteer work with the demands of family life and a thriving career.Her clothing line, Belle Gray by Lisa Rinna, has been a top seller on QVC, and she’s back on the NBC soap opera Days of Our Lives. Her third book, The Big Fun Sexy Sex Book (Gallery Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.)—co-written with sex therapist Ian Kerner, PhD—was published in May.

No matter how full Lisa’s schedule is, the one-two punch of her mother’s and sister’s battles with breast cancer is never far from her mind. “When your loved one deals with a life-threatening disease, it puts everything into perspective so quickly,” she says. “It’s not about thinking and wishing for what you don’t have; it’s about what you do have. It’s about living in the moment and being so blessed and grateful for what you have now.”

Keeping cancer at bay
Lisa takes a preventive approach to the disease. That makes sense, given that about one-third of cancer deaths each year are linked to poor diet, inactivity and being overweight, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Here are the steps she and her family take to stay healthy:

  • Focus on fresh foods. “[We] try to eat unprocessed, organic foods as much as possible,” says Lisa.
    How it might help you: Research shows that eating more fruits and vegetables (especially the antioxidant-rich colorful ones), consuming more whole grains, and limiting your intake of red and processed meat can help stave off cancer, according to the ACS. Aim to eat at least 2½ cups of vegetables and fruits daily.
  • Get physical. Lisa and her husband, actor Harry Hamlin, love to go for bike rides or roller blade on the Venice Beach boardwalk with their daughters. “I think exercise is one of the greatest things we can do to keep ourselves healthy and feeling good,” Lisa says. “I’m a firm believer in doing some kind of exercise for 30 minutes every day. I’ll walk, work out with a trainer, or take a spin or yoga class. Our girls are really active. They play tennis, and they’re both dancers. And we have two trampolines at our house.”
    How it might help you: Exercise may help reduce your risk of breast and colon cancers, and it will help you keep your weight in check. Women who exercised for at least 10 hours per week were about one-third less likely to have breast cancer as those who were sedentary, according to a new study published in Cancer. Do some form of moderate-intensity exercise, such as biking or taking a brisk walk, for at least 2½ hours per week, recommends the ACS.
  • Go green. “We’ve taken steps to make our environment healthier,” says Lisa. “We use only nontoxic cleaning products, and we’re trying to phase out [our use of] plastic water bottles.”
    How it might help you: Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in plastic products, may be a carcinogen, so the ACS recommends limiting your exposure. Avoid plastic containers with the number 7 on the bottom, don’t microwave anything plastic, and choose glass, porcelain or stainless steel containers—especially for hot food or liquids.
Published March 2014

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