Source: Acorn Online
Author: Susan Wolf

Thanksgiving will be more than a pleasant holiday gathering with family and friends this year for Colleen Zenk Pinter. It will be a celebration of life, of being thankful for those closest to her.

Ms. Zenk Pinter approaches this Thanksgiving cancer-free after a long and often painful battle with oral cancer. Her journey has been fraught with setbacks, but she has emerged as a formidable opponent, one who now uses her celebrity to educate others about oral cancer.

A two-time Emmy Award nominee, Colleen Zenk Pinter has played the character of Barbara Ryan since 1978 on the CBS daytime drama As the World Turns. Her own world was turned upside down in March 2007 when her oral cancer was diagnosed. A lesion under her tongue “that didn’t even look like cancer” was, in fact, cancer.

Somehow she got through her daughter Georgia’s 14th birthday party, telling no one, not even her husband, actor Mark Pinter, who was out of town. Finally, the next day, she gave the news to her husband and mother and then went to see Jen Wastrom, a woman she affectionately calls the “ring leader” of her posse of friends. Eventually “the posse” was notified and thesupport that has come to mean so much to Ms. Zenk Pinter immediately materialized.

After a second opinion from Dr. Clarence Sasaki of Yale-New Haven Hospital on how best to treat her cancer, Ms. Zenk Pinter put herself into his hands. He performed a partial glossectomy and resection, removing the right side of her tongue while leaving the taste buds, and then rebuilding her entire tongue.

“The surgery was pretty gruesome. I got through the first couple of weeks and then went back and learned that next was radiation,” Ms. Zenk Pinter recalled.

Brachytherapy, which places the radiation inside the area of the tumor, was used. Twenty radioactive rods were implanted in Ms. Zenk Pinter’s tongue. Her tongue eventually rejected seven of them and two of them broke through, burning her throat. A third surgery replanted them with only a local anesthetic since Ms. Zenk Pinter had already had so much anesthesia.

But three weeks later, Ms. Zenk Pinter, who is also a talented singer and dancer, her husband and two of what she calls “her two acting kids,” Dylan and Kelsey, were scheduled to perform in Sondheim’s Follies in Chicago. Some of her friends tried to discourage her from performing. Ms. Wastrom was not one of them. She recalled how happy her friend was when trying on her gown for Follies.

A voice

Immediately after her diagnosis and before her second opinion, and against advice, Ms. Zenk Pinter got on the Web, where she found the Oral Cancer Foundation (oralcancerfoundation.org) to learn more about the disease. “I had no risk factor for this ‘old man’s cancer’,” she said, but her first doctor said hers was probably due to human papilloma virus (HPV), which is most often associated with cervical cancer.

Because of her desire to educate others, Ms. Zenk Pinter said she decided “to be as vocal as I could possibly be… Maybe I have this [cancer] because this disease needs a voice.” She offered her “voice” to Brian Hill, executive director of the Oral Cancer Foundation and a Stage 4 oral cancer survivor. “He said, ‘Get well first, and then decide’.”

After Follies, she told Mr. Hill that she was ready and a marketing plan was put in place. She has partnered with the Oral Cancer Foundation, Yale-New Haven Hospital and Roswell Park Cancer Institute to get the word out about oral cancer, and has made appearances on CBS and CNN to talk about it.

Ms. Zenk Pinter also went to the producer of As the World Turns and asked if he could write oral cancer into her story line. She put him in touch with the Oral Cancer Foundation and six months later, her character was diagnosed with cancer.

Many of Ms. Zenk Pinter’s fans had noticed a difference in her speech after her surgeries and were concerned she had had a stroke. She remembers how difficult it was to enunciate.

“I had to completely learn to respeak,” she said, adding she couldn’t put consonants together. Her tongue still swells each night, so it is more difficult to speak in the morning. And don’t ask her to say “fast break” too quickly. The “st-br” combination is still difficult.

While Ms. Zenk Pinter continued to live a full life, she was well aware there is a 50% two-year return rate on her cancer. “Mine was back in 18 months,” she said. “The survival rates are not that great and the quality of life can be horrendous, but I’ve been lucky.”

A year ago September, Ms. Zenk Pinter found a lump under her jaw line — two weeks after a clear PET scan. She knew the results of her biopsy two days before Thanksgiving in 2008, and the day after Thanksgiving, instead of shopping on Black Friday, she underwent a neck dissection, an ear to chin surgery to remove 21 additional lymph nodes.

Posse arrives

When her husband had to go back to L.A. after Thanksgiving, it was her posse of friends who took care of her. “This is a group of girls I couldn’t live my life without,” Ms. Zenk Pinter said.

During the radiation she underwent every day for five weeks, she had to wear a mask molded to her face and was strapped to a table while the radiation was being directed to her neck. Her day started with driving Georgia to Barlow and “a posse member of the day” driving her to Yale-New Haven Hospital and then home. She’d spend the rest of the day sleeping and knitting, making cuffs of mohair and cashmere or bamboo or merino wool for her posse. The cuffs were knitted with five needles and it took about 14 hours to make each pair of cuffs— seven pairs were placed on her mantel one by one.

After radiation was finished, Ms. Wastrom dragged her to yoga class. “I was so weak, I was trying to do something physical to get myself back together,” Ms. Zenk Pinter said. “All I did was physically shake during those first classes,” she added. She spent four months trying to get her body back in shape for a project that didn’t work out, but her strength has returned.

Ms. Zenk Pinter said Ms. Wastrom “is like a sister to me. I don’t know what I’d do without her. She is always there. I’ve always been very fortunate to have wonderful friends, most of them lifelong.” Her friends come from different backgrounds, she said, including Susie Bedsow Horgan, an Emmy-award winning writer and producer, the only person in Ms. Zenk Pinter’s inner circle who is in the entertainment business.

Friend Jeanne Billett of Redding is described as her “pillar of strength,” the one who was her advocate with the oncologists and doctors and who is a self-described women’s rights advocate. The Pinters and the Billetts will once again spend this Thanksgiving together, as they have all of the holidays for years.

Then there is Mary Redding of Marblehead, Mass., a lifelong friend, “who drops everything to jump on I-84 on a moment’s notice to come down and help.” Another lifelong friend, Lindy Lewis Webbe, “had dropped out of the sky but we reconnected” when she moved to Easton in 2008,” Ms. Zenk Pinter said. “She’s there for me at a moment’s notice.”

“My posse from different parts of my life are now all meshed with each other,” Ms. Zenk Pinter said. “They all check up with each other to see if I’m OK.

“I’ll be giving thanks not only for having my good health back, but also for being surrounded by friends I adore, who have taken care of me and supported me and fed me and my children, and took me where I needed to be taken. I want to be around to enjoy the company of all my great friends in my old age.”

Ms. Zenk Pinter said she is “surrounded by love” here and remarked about the outpouring of cards and letters she has received. Acquaintances have given her many gifts, including “beautiful yarn. How thoughtful that is — that they know this keeps me busy and makes me happy in so many ways.”

Many others, she added, helped take care of her children when her husband was out of town.

There are six children in what Ms. Zenk Pinter calls her “blended” family (his, hers and their children). Ms. Zenk Pinter said the children were raised as a family. “No one ever referred to the other as a half or step. There is such love and support with these kids.”

Siri, 28, is in California and the mother of Ms. Zenk Pinter’s first grandchild, Jackson James. Kelsey, 25, is in New York City where she is an aspiring actor. The twins, Dylan and Hannah, are 24 years old. Dylan is also an actor in New York and Hannah is a casting director for NBC in Los Angeles. Morgan, 19, is a sophomore at Lafayette College where, to his mom’s delight, he was named the Lafayette College Greek God of 2009. Georgia, 16, is a Joel Barlow High School junior and a member of the school’s varsity volleyball team. The Falcons “were the Cinderella story of high school this volleyball year,” said Ms. Zenk Pinter. The team was the runner-up in the State Class M Championship this past weekend.

“She’s a rabid volleyball fan,” Ms. Wastrom said about her friend.

“I’ve been lucky my schedule has allowed me to only miss two games,” Ms. Zenk Pinter added.

Another battle

While Ms. Zenk Pinter was going through her own battle with cancer, she found out her mother, Ruth Zenk, was diagnosed with Stage 4 uterine cancer. That was in June 2008. “We had our mother and daughter oncology days,” Ms. Zenk Pinter said. She happily reports her mother is now cancer-free.

With her cancer behind her, Ms. Zenk Pinter is enjoying “the outrageous story line” for her on As the World Turns. She is now involved with a much younger guy. “It’s so much fun for me. It’s being played for comedy,” Ms. Zenk Pinter said.

She was voted best actress in Soap Opera Digest in every issue for the last four months and also named performer of the week in the Nov. 17 issue. She was named one of TV Guide’s “Sexy and Beautiful People” for 2009.

For Ms. Zenk Pinter, she is grateful for the support she has received from the producers of As the World Turns. “They didn’t abandon me, and now they have put me front and center again. I appreciate this more than when I was younger, but I appreciate everything more now.”

Ms. Zenk Pinter has learned “not to sweat the small stuff. It’s not important. What is important is going to my daughter’s volleyball games, helping out my friends when they need help — we are all there for each other, and that’s what counts.”

“A castmate said, ‘You’re awake now,’ and I am. I am not sleeping on the job anymore,” said Ms. Zenk Pinter. “At this point I just want to be with my kids and enjoy and not worry… I just want to enjoy those around me and hold them close, and to give thanks.”

Colleen Zenk Pinter of Redding, an actor who stars as Barbara Ryan on As the World Turns, has partnered with the Oral Cancer Foundation, Yale New-Haven Hospital and Roswell Park Cancer Institute to be a spokesperson for oral cancer. Ms. Pinter was diagnosed with oral cancer in March 2007 and is now cancer-free.

“I had no risk factors for this ‘old man’s cancer,’ she said, but her doctors said hers was probably due to human papilloma virus (HPV), which is most often associated with cervical cancer.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the country, and it is estimated that about 70% of American men and women will be infected at some point in their lives.

According to Ms. Zenk Pinter, a growing number of women are being diagnosed with oral cancer, from one in 10 to now a 50-50 split. “The difference is HPV,” she said.

She is a proponent of the Gardasil® vaccine against HPV for both girls and boys. It doesn’t help if only half of the population (girls) is being vaccinated. Why boys? “Simple. HPV is sexually transmitted.”

Physicians and researchers advocate that the vaccine be given to both sexes, Ms. Zenk Pinter said.

During her speech at New York University School of Dentistry graduation, where she received the 2009 Harry S. Strusser Memorial Award for Public Service and Outstanding Contributions to Public Health, Ms. Zenk Pinter implored the graduating doctors and surgeons to thoroughly check their patients for oral cancer at every cleaning. “If it is caught early,” she said, “it is highly treatable.”

Her message, Ms. Zenk Pinter said, is, “Make sure you have a thorough cancer screening every time you see your dentist.”

She has made appearances on CBS and CNN and major women’s magazines to talk about oral cancer early detection. She was honored in 2008 by Hollywood, Health and Society at USC for her oral cancer storyline on As the World Turns. The society is a watchdog group that assesses medical storytelling in film and television.

Ms. Zenk Pinter recently spoke at the American Cancer Society luncheon in Westport and will be speaking at the first Head and Neck Cancer Symposium in Phoenix, Ariz., in January. “Wherever they need me, I will go,” she said.

She has been nominated for the Gilda Radner Courage Award for 2010, which is given to a cancer survivor who has made an impact in the field. “I am very humbled and honored,” Ms. Zenk Pinter said.

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