A Conversation With Noreen Fraser
by the Melissa Etheridge Eco-Friendly Street Team
Noreen Fraser is a survivor living with Stage IV breast cancer. She co-created and co-produced the 2008 and 2010 "Stand Up To Cancer" television specials that have raised over $180 million dollars in donations and pledges for cancer research. Noreen created the Noreen Fraser Foundation to fund translational cancer research in the area of women’s cancers.* In 2009, Melissa Etheridge became a Board Member of the Noreen Fraser Foundation. The Melissa Etheridge Eco-Friendly Street Team spoke with Noreen about meeting Melissa Etheridge, the Noreen Fraser Foundation and "Stand Up to Cancer," and the importance of early cancer detection.
Read the interview here…
When did you first meet Melissa Etheridge?
Noreen: I met her in 2008 maybe two months before "Stand Up To Cancer" when we did a press conference where we announced that we were doing the show. We had a red carpet and we had several celebrities that came to say they were supporting our initiative to raise money for cancer. At that point she had already agreed to be on the show, so that’s how I met her.
What was your impression of her?
Noreen: I was overwhelmed. I used to produce "Entertainment Tonight" so I’ve worked in my career with many, many celebrities. You could say I’m a little bit jaded because there aren’t very many people that really impress me. When she came up to me and talked to me, I couldn’t believe her eyes. It was like looking into Peacefulness, Happiness, and Love. I was overwhelmed by her eyes. I introduced myself and told her that I have Stage IV cancer, and the other [Stand Up To Cancer] Producer, Laura Ziskin, also has Stage IV cancer, and I told her that’s why I had came up with this idea to do "Stand Up To Cancer."
Sometimes, not always, but sometimes when I talk to people and bring up that I have Stage IV cancer, depending on the day, sometimes I will cry. I get teary saying it and I don’t know why I feel like I’m going to cry. I don’t know if it’s every time I say it, like right now I feel like I’m going to cry, so when I say it, tears usually well up. When I told Melissa, she grabbed my hand. She was so beautiful and she said, “It’s going to be OK. It’s really going to be OK.” She said, “You know what, we’ll get together and we’ll talk.”
Then all this time went by and the show came and of course she was performing for the show so I was in the green room talking with her. I had never seen her perform before. My sister who’s younger than me knows all of her music, but back then I was immersed in having babies and I stopped working. I wasn’t talking to anyone about what was going on in any part of the entertainment industry. So when Melissa performed at "Stand Up To Cancer," I almost had a heart attack. I couldn’t believe it.
Shortly thereafter, I went to see her in concert. I’m telling you, even if somebody would have taken me there and I had nothing to do with cancer, if somebody had just told me to go to her concert, I would have fallen in love with her music there. I’ve never seen a better performer in my life. And so versatile in everything that she can do. I’m totally in awe of her writing, her voice, everything that she’s done. I mean I never thought of her as a ‘Rock Star.’ She IS a Rock Star. Who knew? I really didn’t know that much about her. As I was saying I was immersed in raising my children, but she’s been so wonderful to me and so supportive – so kind and caring. She’s been a real blessing in my life.
How did she come to be on the Board of Directors of the Noreen Fraser Foundation?
Noreen: I originally was going to do a telethon that was just for breast cancer. I had been planning a fundraiser for women’s cancer and I had sold it to "Lifetime" and "Oxygen." I had a date in March that the show was going to air and all of the money was going to go to UCLA and Doctors Glaspy and Slamon. Dr. Slamon is the scientist who was responsible for discovering Herceptin. These two guys are geniuses in the field of breast cancer.
I saw Laura Ziskin in treatment when I was in treatment, and I said I knew her from "Entertainment Tonight." I said I needed her to help me get celebrities, and I asked John (Dr. Glaspy), “Can you call and set up a meeting?” I went to see her and she said, “Yes I’ll help you get any celebrities you want, just write them out on a piece of paper and I’ll start calling and we’ll get together in a few weeks.” Then as fate would have it she ran into Sherry Lansing and Sherry Lansing said, “You know Katie Couric and I have been talking about doing this for NBC because her husband died of colon cancer.” So she said, “Why don’t you bring Noreen and we’ll meet her?” I came in and Sherry was very convincing talking me into doing not just women’s cancer but to collaborate with them and do all cancers. And I did. We made over 100 million dollars.
One of the breast cancer projects ended up getting funded $15 million dollars, so it was a win-win. Then I decided I really wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to go back to what I was doing. Healing and humor was very important to me. I really wanted to just do women’s cancer research, so I called Melissa and I asked her if she’d have breakfast with me.
Michelle McBride, my Executive Director and I went out there and I told Melissa what my goals were and that I was starting this new foundation. We had a great breakfast and at the very end of it, I remember Michelle was looking at me…you know how when you’re looking at someone like ‘Go ahead, say it!’ and you’re like ‘Uhhhh . . .’ and then you go on to another topic? No one wants to get rejected. You put yourself out there, you put yourself up to the chance for rejection, so I just blurted it out, “Will you join my board?” and Melissa said, “I would love to.”
I said, “Thank you Melissa, we’ll get together.” Michelle and I went back to get our car in the parking lot. We were not doing anything. We were stunned. Back in our car in the parking lot, we looked at each other, and we rolled all the windows up and we SCREAMED: “AAAAAAHHHH!!!!” We were SO EXCITED! ‘MELISSA ETHERIDGE IS ON OUR BOARD!!’ It was the biggest thing. I mean I’ve had a lot of big Board Members but they are people that I’ve known my whole life in the entertainment industry. Getting someone who is Melissa Etheridge is like having a rock star so it’s very, very exciting.
If you were to choose one word to describe Melissa Etheridge, what would that one word be, and why did you choose that word?
Noreen: It would be two words that really are one word. I would say Other Wordly. From another world. There is a vibe there, and an energy there, spirituality there, that I’ve never felt in my life in meeting anyone.
You are living with Stage IV breast cancer, and in 2003 it metastasized to the bones. How are you doing today? How are you living with that on a day to day basis?
Noreen: I guess I’m getting used to it, if you ever get used to it. Actually I take that back. I’m not used to it. It was really hard for me to start this Foundation. It took about two years. Every time I went to try to sell a show, I would cry. And I would pitch it, and it was humiliating for me. It was so unprofessional, and I would go home and go, “I am NOT doing this. I am not doing this. It’s too hard. I cannot do it. I can’t face my situation anymore.” So I would put it away for six months. Then I’d get it out again, then I’d cry again. My biggest inspiration was my daughter who was ten when I was first diagnosed and I didn’t want her to have to live with cancer or any of her darling little girlfriends that I love so much. Every time there was a resurrection it would be because of my daughter. It took a very, very long time.
The way I react to it today…I get scans every three months for my organs and every three months for my bones. I try not to think about it until the day I go in for my scans. I’m busy, busy, busy, then I run over to UCLA and get in a room and take off my clothes and I put the gown on. That’s when I go, “Holy shit. I can’t believe this.” I get in the machine and I usually cry. I’ll feel sorry for myself and I’ll go home – and ever since the kids were little, on scan days I let myself go lie down on the couch and either take a nap or watch television or play with the kids. I try to chill out and give myself the day off to feel sorry for myself.
So many people go through these hard times and they have to find strength in different places, and they do find the strength to go on and just live day by day. You went out and created "Stand Up To Cancer" and the Noreen Fraser Foundation. The first event in 2008 rose over $100 million and the second one this year has over $80 million in pledges. You are changing the world. Melissa has said, ‘I want to be with people who want to change the world.’ It’s obvious how the two of you have crossed paths and are now working together with the Foundation to help fund a cure for breast cancer.
Noreen: It would be interesting to ask Melissa why she was willing to be on my Board. I’ve never asked her why. It must have been – the feeling that I had when I looked into her eyes. That feeling that brings people together. Sometimes you don’t know why, you don’t know when it’s going to happen, but I felt an instant connection to her and I have to believe that she must have found that with me. I don’t know why else she would have agreed to do this.
She’s been great, and we’re really looking forward to raising money to put into environmental studies and obviously putting all our money into research. I am looking for projects right now and when I see Melissa next we’ll set up a time to get together and narrow it down. She wants to do environmental as well so we’re going to have to pick some kind of forward thinking person who’s doing cancer research regarding the environment. That’s my next phase.
What message would you convey to women facing breast cancer today, maybe somebody who’s recently diagnosed or someone who is starting to go through the treatment today?
Noreen: I think I have more of a message for people who do not have cancer and have not yet been diagnosed, but my message to people who have been diagnosed is: I have three words for them…Just do it. Just do it and get on with your life. You’ve got to buck up and do it. People say, “You’re such an inspiration” and I look at them and I say, “Well, what other choice do we have?” I don’t see myself as anyone special. You think anyone’s going to listen to me if I’m a crybaby every day? They are going to get sick of me. You can only help your friends so much and be supportive, but you cannot live a life of complaining and feeling sorry for yourself because no one wants to be around that person. You have moments and your friends will support you in those moments. I believe I have a great network of some fabulous women and they keep me going.
I have been in support groups and I have heard stories about women who have had a lump and have not done anything about it. It makes me crazy. Who would find a lump and not do anything about it? There really are a ton of organizations that if you don’t have the money will pay for a mammogram. Don’t tell me you don’t have any money to get your mammogram. Get real. Get on the internet. Get your boss, your sister or friend to help you figure it out if you’re too overwhelmed. You can get a mammogram in this country if you want it. You can figure it out.
This is a side project and something I haven’t really had the chance to talk to Melissa about yet, but the GLBT community, this group of women have a very high incident of breast cancer and ovarian cancer that’s caught in a later stage. They are usually not Stage I people because they are saying that that group of people does not want to go to the doctor. I thought that was so fascinating. I thought that might be something Melissa and I should work on, getting the word out that you’ve got to get checked! You cannot wait! Early detection…you must find the Stage I. You must! It is the only way.
I was a Stage I the first time. My tumor was so small that there was a 96% chance that if I did radiation and took Tamoxifen and did not do chemo there was a 96% chance it would not come back. Now, sorry to say, I’m in the 4% where it came back and moved into my bones. So you know what? I got screwed. What can I say? But 96% is pretty damn good statistics. Those are good odds! So that’s the key. I mean 96% of the people can be cured! It’s incredible to me.
Some people have Stage IV cancer and live with it for years and other people can pass away from Stage I. You never know. The odds are there but some people sometimes defy the odds.
Noreen: Right. And I guess no one will ever know why. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me!
Thank you so much, Noreen. It was an honor.