The “Whiskey Cavalier” actor opens up about caregiving for his mother following her ovarian cancer diagnosis.
At 11 years old,
actor Scott Foley took on one of the biggest roles of his life: secondary caregiver to his mother. She received an ovarian cancer diagnosis, which put many responsibilities on Foley. His mother suffered recurrences for four years before passing away from the disease 30 years ago.
To help other women and their families feel empowered, Foley, who is best known for roles in hit TV shows, such as “Felicity” and “Scandal,” has teamed up with Tesaro, an oncology-focused biopharmaceutical company, for the national movement Not on My Watch
campaign. In an interview with CURE®,
he shares the life lessons learned and advice for other caretakers.
CURE®: Can you share a little about your mother’s ovarian cancer diagnosis?
I am the oldest of three boys. And I was 11 when we first found out that my mom had ovarian cancer. I remember my parents sitting us down and telling us mom was sick and she needed to get some treatment and spend some time in the hospital and she was going to have surgery. My mom had a full hysterectomy and then went through chemotherapy and radiation. Things were not that different right off the bat, but chemotherapy takes its toll. She lost her hair, which is a strange thing for an 11-year-old kid to deal with around his friends.
My dad was trying to hold down a full-time job and raise a family, so a lot of the caregiver responsibilities sort of fell on my shoulders as the oldest son — taking care of my brothers, making sure my mom’s room was quiet and she had everything she needed. It was a lot of responsibility.
And not long after that, maybe a year to a year and a half, they told her they got all the cancer. She went into remission. And it was great. My mom started volunteering at cancer information centers at our local hospital, but pretty quickly the cancer returned stronger. It had metastasized. This was when we knew that something serious was going on, even at that age. I don’t know if we ever knew that she was going to pass away or that that was a possibility, but she would spend longer (amounts of time) at chemotherapy (visits) and the hospitals. Toward the end of her life, my dad found a hospital and a doctor in Philadelphia — we were living in St. Louis at the time — who was experimenting with higher doses of chemotherapy and radiation and was having some success, so my father moved my mom to this hospital. The last nine months of her life she was there. Struggling. We only saw her one time. We went up for Thanksgiving. My dad was there every weekend and that meant that I was the caregiver looking after my brothers even though we had a nanny. And when she passed, it was a surprise, not to my father, but to us kids. We didn’t realize the severity of the situation. Looking back, it would have been nice to know. I think kids can handle it.
Caregivers are often called the unsung heroes. Serving as a secondary caregiver to your mom, what was that like to take on at a young age?
It was probably more than I was ready for. It’s a strange thing to talk about because at that age you shouldn’t be focused on a sick parent and having to take care of them while the other parent is making ends meet. I remember, specifically, hundreds of times telling my brothers “No, don’t play here. Leave mom alone. Don’t go in there.” And they’d say, “We need aspirin.” Then I’d say, “I’ll get it.” (I remember) tip-toeing through the room, making sure mom had her water. You know those plastic hospital carafes? My mom liked them. We took a couple of those from the hospital and that’s what my mom would keep her water in on the bedside table, so it was my responsibility to always keep that full (of) ice and water. It was a lot when all I wanted to do was play video games and go outside with my friends. Looking back, how lucky was I, as the oldest son, to get to spend that time and be able to take care of her?
I empathize and sympathize with those who are in that position now because it’s a tough place to be. I have been in the public eye for 25 years and have never really spoken about this before, but I’ve come to learn about the progress that medicine has made and the advancements and working with Tesaro and the Not on My Watch campaign is a way I hope that we can get the word out to caregivers and people suffering through recurrent ovarian cancer and let them know that there aren’t just times to sit back and wait. That was one of things that our doctor told us about my mom, “Hey, we did radiation. We did chemotherapy. Now let’s wait and see.” And you don’t have to do that anymore. There are options. There are maintenance therapies that delay the time in between recurrences.
How did you get involved in Not on My Watch?
Even though I don’t speak about it publicly a lot, my friends and family know I lost my mom when I was really young, and someone reached out to me and told me about this movement and I was put in contact with Tesaro. I’ve become the man I am today partially due to (my mother’s passing) at such a young age and I want to let people know that if they have a story like mine that their story doesn’t have to necessarily end the way mine did.
What is the most important thing that you took away from your experience?
I now know how delicate life is. I deal with death in a much different way now. And I am much more aware, I think, than a lot of people I know of on how fragile we all are — walking around, going to Starbucks, doing our daily routines, and how quickly they can be taken away. I do my best, I’m not great, like everybody else, to try to stop daily and recognize that. Put my phone down and play with my kids, or turn the TV off and look my wife in the eye and tell her I love her.
What is your biggest piece of advice for other caregivers?
This is going to sound strange and counterintuitive, but don’t just focus on the person who’s sick. And not just for your benefit, but for their benefit as well. We want to make sure they are comfortable, getting the best treatment, and that’s all important but these diseases (are) like a waterfall. They affect everybody involved — family, friends and the community. And you have to create support throughout all those different levels. I would say to caregivers, turn around and look at who else is suffering. It might be you, and you might have to reach out to someone else.
Listen to the CURE® Talks Cancer Podcast with Scott Foley, "Scott Foley Opens Up About Caregiving."