Today, we are fortunate enough to interview Marisa Sullivan, who is one of our Health Web Magazine writers and a fascinating person. Stick around while we hear the details of her exciting life as a journalist, actor, host, and advocate for women.
Marisa has lived in Los Angeles for the past decade, where she quickly established herself in the entertainment journalism industry. She worked as Senior Reporter for US Weekly for several years and has also produced and acted in various shows and series.
Marisa has interviewed numerous celebrities like Meryl Streep, Mark Wahlberg, Jon Hamm, and Liam Neeson. Also, she has covered events like the Grammys, Oscars, Golden Globe Awards, and the Super Bowl.
Recently, Marisa was diagnosed with and then recovered from breast cancer. Hear the details of her courageous journey and how it affected her life. Her optimistic spirit shines through as she reminds us that “attitude is everything.”
We are very grateful to have you, Marisa! Can you please tell us about yourself, your work, and your journey so far?
I moved to Los Angeles from Chicago in 2001 for an entertainment career, only knowing two people in the city and I did not have a job or home lined up, or even a car. I had zero to my name and was a fresh college drop-out. I had just studied French and Theatre in the South of France for a semester and just didn’t want to go back to school, I was antsy to start my career and school was taking too long with all of the pre-requisites and not being able to get into certain classes I wanted. I felt I was wasting time and money.
How’s your experience as a journalist, writer, actress, and producer? Which field is more exciting for you?
I fell into reporting because I had a few friends in the field, and I wound up being a good source due to the industry contacts I was making while bartending. I had a natural knack for it but didn’t realize it at first. I was making thousands off of cover stories back in the day and an opening came up at one of the magazines I was freelancing for and I gave it a shot. I started getting bigger and bigger assignments and began to stand out in the industry. Then all of a sudden, I was working as a Senior Reporter at Us Weekly, flying around the world for media trips, and covering events like the Oscars, Golden Globes, Grammys, Super Bowl, Comic-con and interviewing names like Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Jon Hamm, Mark Wahlberg, and the list goes on and on. A highlight was meeting Liam Neeson, my older man crush.
What was the motivation to choose these fields as your career? Any role model?
Growing up, I looked up to women who I felt were more like me like Jenny McCarthy and Jillian Barberie. I’m pretty goofy and animated. Up until that point, women on TV were a little too poised and I was a little rougher around the edges. I always had a wild personality and connected quickly with people from all walks of life, which helped me stand out in my field. Ironically, Jenny McCarthy was my very first interview, and we got along exactly how I always pictured we would. I grew up watching MTV every day and once beat out 8,000 hopefuls across the country for MTV’s Wanna Be a VJ contest after ditching school to audition in Chicago. MTV flew me out to New York, put me up in Times Square, and I competed live on MTV’s TRL. It was one of the first competition reality series. I am a huge music person, and I should have just stuck to working as a media personality instead of auditioning for TV and film roles that were so limiting at the time. I was a way bigger character in real life and much sharper than any of the roles out there for a young, blonde girl in Hollywood. Now years later, I am on camera again as a pop culture and music expert, which is more along the lines of my brief MTV VJ stint.
Tell us something about your films? Which character you enjoyed the most and why?
I recently played a rocker named Rita in this music film I’ll Be Around, that is currently doing pretty well on the festival circuit. The film won Best Indie Feature at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival, and screened in L.A., San Francisco, New York, and Berlin, and is now available on Amazon Prime. That was really fun to shoot. The director had to trim down the film to 2 hours from 3, so some of my scenes didn’t make it in the final cut but I was happy to still have several of them in there. There are nearly 100 whacky characters featured over the course of a post-punk music festival in the film. I also once filmed a scene with Peter Fonda for this film, Japan.
Why you chose to advocate women for various awareness?
I really want to advocate earlier mammograms for women. Many more women are getting diagnosed with breast cancer way before the age of 40. Times are changing due to more pollution, more chemicals and additives in our food, and many more women in their 30s, and even their 20s, are getting breast cancer. We have to change with the times. At the very least, women need to be doing self-checks at a younger age. Don’t always count on routine checks at the doctor. My doctor did not feel my tumor when doing a check on me right before I was diagnosed. I found it myself. I was diagnosed with Stage 2 Grade 3 triple-negative breast cancer on my 40th birthday in November of last year.
Cancer treatment and pandemic at the same time! How did you manage to stay strong?
The pandemic hit about half-way through my chemotherapy treatment. Everything was going surprisingly well until then. I didn’t have too many symptoms at all. I had zero nausea. I just felt kind of loopy and drugged up. I actually had just discovered that I could finish my degree at University of Iowa online, so I kept myself busy with poetry and a rock ‘n’ roll history class. It was very therapeutic. I had been working full-time until the pandemic hit. Coincidentally, the lockdown occurred on the very same week I was starting my disability, so I was fortunate with that timing. Up until the lockdown, I was still performing and going out here and there. I didn’t want cancer to suck the life out of me. I kept pushing to do the things that I loved, just a little more infrequently to make sure that I got proper rest. One huge thing for me was I was able to save my hair by using a product called DigniCap, a scalp-cooling treatment that freezes your scalp during chemotherapy treatment so that the drugs can’t penetrate the hair follicles. I just recently started working with HairToStay , the only national non-profit dedicated to helping cancer patients in need afford scalp cooling. I was fortunate enough to be able to save my hair, which I believe helped my fight immensely. Many cancer patients do not know that they have the option to save their hair, and this organization can help with the treatment cost. To look in the mirror and feel more like myself gave me some feeling of control. I did not want this disease to take anything from me.
The coronavirus affected me more than my cancer did. There was fear in the air everywhere, and it was suddenly very somber at my treatment center. My husband Jimmy, my friends, and my mom had been coming with me to chemo to lighten the mood up until that point, and then all of a sudden, cancer patients couldn’t have anyone with them while getting treatment. My surgery date to get my tumor out was threatened. The only thing that was getting me through my treatment was looking forward to going to concerts and traveling. I had planned to go to Paris at the end of my treatment to see Pearl Jam at Lollapalooza Paris. Now, all of a sudden, people who were ill had nothing to look forward to. Nobody did, but it was and still is especially hard for cancer patients who need those moments and those trips more than ever. I stayed hopeful and thankful to just be alive, but for some terminal patients, what is there to live for? My heart breaks for patients who could not do that last trip or see that last concert. And the people having to die alone without friends and family present? Gut-wrenching. Our world was and still is going through a living hell, and despite how positive I was overall, I couldn’t help but think sometimes, what if I’m going to be one of those people?
Why should one share your life story publicly?
I didn’t really plan on sharing my story publicly at first, as I am one of those people who mainly posts professional posts only. I started sharing because I realized it was helping me to share my private struggle. Especially once the pandemic hit and I was more isolated. Everyone was so supportive, and I was so moved by the love I received. I am proud to say that this gift for myself wound up being more of a gift for others. Women were messaging me telling me how inspiring my fight was and how they were going in to get mammograms. One friend of mine actually found her cancer and thanked me for being so vocal about it. She is in her 30s and never would have gotten checked. It had already spread to the lymph node, but she caught it just in time. I started writing for health sites like the Global Healthy Living Foundation, chronicling my journey. It inspired me to keep going further with my story. I felt that I was making a difference in people’s lives and not just entertaining them with my interviews and travels. I am currently freelance writing for different sites, covering entertainment, true crime and health, but these days I am more inspired to write about health. I want to continue helping people with my writing.
On May 26, 2020, I received the news that I was cancer-free after my surgery. The chemo had worked 100 percent to kill my cancer cells. Finally, my nightmare was coming to an end. I only had a 50/50 chance. Obviously, there is still a risk for a reoccurrence, but since I had a complete response with the chemo, it puts me in a much higher percentage for survival. I have my first scan since my surgery next week. They will be doing a PET scan, a full body scan. Waiting for those results will be nerve-racking, but I’ve been feeling pretty great now that I’m done with nearly one year of treatment, scans, surgery, radiation. I also froze my eggs right after getting diagnosed because the chemo could have potentially taken away my chance to have children. I am urging women of all ages to consider getting that done. I had actually planned on looking into it, but then life through a major curveball and I had to act fast. I didn’t have time to go through the process again on my next cycle, as I had to act fast before chemo started. I had one of the most aggressive breast cancers that was more likely to spread quickly. I was terrified while going through the egg preservation process, wondering if I was making a mistake that could have been risking my life, but my doctors said it was okay to wait a couple of weeks. The future is unclear for me as of now, as it is for many due to this virus, but right now I’m just enjoying being cancer-free and hope that I never have to deal with it ever again!
What’s next for you?
Now, I’m just trying to enjoy every minute of every day while waiting for the world to open back up. In the end, I think my cancer battle will wind up being a gift, yet I’m planning on having a much better birthday this year. Although, I did go to a Madonna concert right after hearing the devastating news last November. I never stopped living. Attitude is everything.