Marissa Jaret Winokur didn’t have time to be sick: She was about to be a star. But at 27, months before she would wow Broadway as Tracy Turnblad in the hit musical Hairspray, Winokur found out she had cervical cancer. Telling only a few friends, she underwent a hysterectomy, soldiered through and went on to win a Tony. Recently scientists have learned more about the cause of cervical cancer—HPV, a sexually transmitted virus—and Winokur, now 33, has decided to open up about her battle. She says that recently approved medical tests might have prevented or detected her cancer earlier. “It’s too late for me: I can’t bear children,” says Winokur, who recently married comedy writer Judah Miller, 33. “But now there are ways to avoid cervical cancer.” She spoke with PEOPLE’s Maureen Harrington.
In 2000 I was living in L.A., going back and forth to New York, working with the Hairspray producers, but they hadn’t given me the part yet. I was back in L.A. when my gynecologist’s office called. My routine Pap smear was “off” and I had to have a biopsy. I was scared, but it never occurred to me that I was sick. A few days later I was in my apartment when I got the call. I was all alone, being told I had cancer and trying to understand what that meant. I was in shock, but my family and friends rallied around me. Within days part of my cervix was removed. The doctors didn’t know if that would get all the cancer. Again, I had to wait for results.
I went back to New York feeling awful. I was sick and scared. I couldn’t tell anyone at work because they still weren’t sure I was right [for Hairspray]. I wasn’t going to give them a reason not to give me the part. My sister made me a padded leotard because I’d lost so much weight. When I returned to L.A. a week later, they told me the cancer had spread and I would have to have a hysterectomy.
Shortly after the second surgery, I got the part. I didn’t have time to be sick—I so wanted this part. I remember days driving through Malibu Canyon, singing “Good Morning, Baltimore” at the top of my lungs and crying. I repeated over and over, “I’m going to be okay.” I was the little engine that could.
I woke up after the surgery, and I asked what they took out. They didn’t know what they would find beforehand. But it was just my uterus. I had my ovaries, and I didn’t have to go through chemo. I thought, “Okay, now the cancer is gone. Let’s get going.” While I was still in the hospital, I started breathing exercises to get my lungs in shape. My doctors gave me the all clear, and I moved to New York City in January 2002. It was the best time of my life. I was on Broadway, in love with Judah and alive. The night I got the Tony, my costar Harvey Fierstein said, “No one can take this from you.” Yes, it was great to be on Broadway. But more importantly, I was alive.
Since Judah and I got engaged, I’ve begun to think about the cancer again. I was so intent on my work, it didn’t enter my mind much. We want children, but I can’t have them, because of the cancer. I felt my loss all over again. As I read the research on harvesting and implanting my eggs, which had remained intact, I began to learn more about the disease. When I was sick, all I wanted to do was get well. I’d never really dealt with all the issues. I never asked about the cause, except to check if it ran in my family. I learned about a year ago that HPV, a common virus, causes cervical cancer. Now there is an HPV test that might have caught my precancerous cells earlier. There’s a vaccine, which can be given to women before they’re sexually active. It makes sense to take these precautions. I’ll encourage my friends’ teenage daughters to get vaccinated.
My story has a happy ending. I still have my eggs, and we’re looking into getting a surrogate. Or maybe we’ll adopt. Now when I go to the gynecologist, I’m there for good—not evil.
For more information visit the American Cancer Society at cancer.org