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Living with Cancer [Preview]

Keep up your spirits and tap available resources to make the disease manageable

It was February 2003, and Kris Carr, a photographer and actress, was on a roll. The bubbly, green-eyed stunner was in high demand. She was considered “the Julia Roberts of advertising” (at least according to her agent), thanks to her success in two popular Bud Light commercials that aired during the Super Bowl. She also had some impressive theater and film credits, among them a role in Arthur Miller’s Mr. Peter’s Connections, in which she performed (in the buff, no less) alongside actor Peter Falk.

Like many of her hip young compeers, Carr, then 31, routinely burned the candle at both ends. She existed on energy bars, fast food and coffee downed between nonstop auditions and takes. Every so often her frenetic lifestyle would catch up with her as it did now: she had just returned home to New York City after “partying like a rock star” at Florida’s Sarasota Film Festival, where a film she had appeared in premiered, and she was dragging. Time to detox, cleanse her body and soul, exercise and eat right for a spell. She swore off drinking for a month and took a vigorous Jivamukti-style yoga class to kick-start her new get-healthy-quick scheme.

“The following morning I woke up feeling like I was hit by a truck,” Carr says. Every muscle ached. She dismissed her sore body as a sign that she was more out of shape than she had thought and, as usual, slipped into tight jeans, slathered on a mask of makeup and headed to an audition: a commercial for a diet shake. (She didn’t get it: too fat, says the slender onetime model.)

By evening, stiff muscles were the least of Carr’s problems. Her pain had worsened, and it was now accompanied by shortness of breath and severe abdominal cramping. She made an appointment to see her doctor the following day.

Gallbladder trouble, the physician surmised after a quick examination. Recommended treatment: yank the pear-shaped organ that, when healthy, helps the liver flush fats from the body but, when faulty, causes excruciating pain. He gave Carr a prescription for painkillers and sent her for an ultrasound to confirm that her gallbladder was indeed the culprit.

It wasn't.

“When they did the ultrasound, they found the ‘lesions.’ They could see there were spots all over my liver—so many that it looked like Swiss cheese,” Carr says. She was concerned but still blissfully ignorant of the potential ramifications. “I didn’t know,” she says, “that lesions meant tumors.”

A battery of tests over the next few days revealed that Carr was suffering from epithelioid hemangioendothelioma (EHE), a vascular cancer in the lining of the blood vessels in her liver and lungs so rare that only 0.01 percent of the cancer population has it. Around 200 to 300 cases are diagnosed nationwide every year. The cause: unknown. The cancer was stage IV—incurable and inoperable, the doctor said. “Some people say it could have come on like a meteor shower,” Carr says; others suspect the tumors had been developing her whole life.

EHE is typically a slow-moving cancer. There are studies under way but currently no cures or definitive treatments. The doctor recommended a “watch and wait” approach. That is, that they take their cues from the tumors—monitor them for two months to gauge whether they were holding steady or moving slowly or swiftly. They were quiet for now, “indolent” in cancer-speak, and the hope was they would stay that way.

It was February 14. “Happy Valentine’s Day. You have cancer,” Carr wrote in her journal that night.

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