The Hairspray star – who landed her dream role while in treatment – speaks out to help others

Just months before she would wow Broadway as Tracy Turnblad in the hit musical Hairspray, Marissa Jaret Winokur found out she had cervical cancer at the age of 27. 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 to PEOPLE about her battle.

Winokur in her own words…
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. A few days later I was in my apartment when I got the call. I was in shock, but my family and friends rallied around me. Within days part of my cervix was removed.

I went back to New York feeling awful. 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 repeated over and over, “I’m going to be okay.”

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.” 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.

When I was sick, all I wanted to do was get well. 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.

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