Ten years after Farrah Fawcett‘s death from anal cancer at age 62, she’s being remembered for bringing attention to a disease that is rarely talked about.
“Farrah was very practical about the fact she might be famous, but when it came to cancer, no one was special,” her Los Angeles-based oncologist Dr. Laurence Piro tells PEOPLE. “She was brave and heroically so. She hated hearing her name and anal cancer in the same sentence, but it was important for the stigma to be broken. She wanted to raise awareness from the very beginning.”
Long celebrated for her tousled hair and perfect smile, the late star — she died June 25, 2009 — always wanted to be defined by more than her looks, and in making her cancer battle public and launching The Farrah Fawcett Foundation in 2007, she redefined her legacy.
“She felt she was supposed to carry the torch for people who could not tell their story, how much they suffer,” says Dr. Piro. “She wanted everyone to see, so that people would be motivated to put money towards research, to get the word out about early detection and prevention.”
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After her diagnosis in 2006, Fawcett began filming her medical appointments to better understand her treatment. That footage became the basis for the wrenching documentary Farrah’s Story, co-produced with her friend Alana Stewart, which aired six weeks before her death.
“She wanted people to see the raw truth of cancer, for better or worse,” says Stewart. “Right until the end, she wanted to fight the fight. She wanted to make a difference.”
According to Stewart, “Farrah once said to her doctor, ‘You know it’s funny, I’m almost glad I got cancer in a way. Now I can make a real difference.’ And that is what she wanted to do with her foundation.”
Fawcett’s original plan was that she would run the foundation herself. “Her vision was to help people struggling with cancer, and look into cutting-edge research, especially for less-researched cancers, such as anal cancer,” says Stewart. “The other part was to focus on awareness and prevention and how important early detection is to saving your life.”
Today, the foundation pursues her vision by focusing on HPV-related cancer research, prevention and education, as well as patient assistance.
In 2013, the foundation joined forces with Stand Up to Cancer to contribute $1.5 million dollars to help fund a research team on HPV-related cancers. (They are now conducting clinical trials at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.) The foundation has also created patient assistance funds at seven medical centers to help cancer patients pay expenses related to treatment.
On Sept. 6, the foundation will host its Tex Mex Fiesta fundraiser to raise money, which will go to Stand Up to Cancer. “If people want to remember Farrah this year, they can go to the foundation website and make a donation, and specify whether for research or patient assistance in honor of someone they know who has or has had cancer,” says the foundation’s Director of Communications, Christine Romeo.
In the decade since her passing, Fawcett’s Charlie’s Angels costar Jaclyn Smith says, “Farrah didn’t give up. She was relentless in her fight and in finding a cure. That is her greatest legacy, her foundation. Farrah was a person of action. It was more about action than talking about it.”
And Fawcett was heartened by the huge response she received by sharing her story.
“She read every letter that was sent to her,” says her dear friend, Mela Murphy. “She felt good that people were relating to her. If she could fight it, she thought others could fight it as well. She felt good she was giving other people hope.”