Some friendships last a lifetime. And, then there is Alana and Farrah. For Alana Stewart and the late Farrah Fawcett their friendship continues even though Alana lost her dear friend of more than 30 years in 2009. Theirs is a true love story – it’s about sharing your innermost secrets, having each other’s back, laughing when you want to cry, taking the good with the bad, never giving up on each other. This kind of friendship is rare.
When it comes to caregiving, many friends will bake a casserole, visit you in the hospital or help by picking up your kids at soccer practice. Not many will put their own lives on pause for almost three years to chase promising new cancer treatments half way across the world, be your advocate with health care professionals, hold your head and hand while you spend hours with nausea from chemotherapy. That is love.
When I told Alana how rare her friendship with Farrah is, she responded, “I didn’t think it was so rare, it was just the thing to do.” And when Farrah asked Alana to be with her in Germany and the U.S. while she sought treatment, there was no question in Alana’s mind that she would be there for her friend.
Over the course of three years, from Farrah’s anal cancer diagnosis in 2006 to her death in 2009, Alana was by Farrah’s side. She made several trips with Farrah to Germany to seek new treatments not yet approved in the U.S. Alana recalls how hard it was to watch her friend go through painful surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments that were helping her fight the cancer but were also beating down her immune system making the athletic Farrah so weak.
“Farrah had such amazing courage and faith, we never even talked about the possibility of these treatments not working,” says Stewart.
As is typical in caregiving situations, Alana became Farrah’s protector. For instance, she ensured no paparazzi caught a photo of Farrah in a wheelchair. Alana explains this wasn’t vanity on Farrah’s part it was her not wanting other cancer patients to feel she was losing the fight or that she was weak – she wanted to be strong for the people who had written her letters about being their inspiration. Alana also became Farrah’s advocate with various health care professionals. While the choices Farrah made for her treatment were all her own – Alana took notes and asked a lot of questions and at Farrah’s request, documented the conversations on video that became an Emmy-nominated NBC documentary, “Farrah’s Story” that aired one month before Farrah’s passing in 2009.
“It is a really rare friend who steps in like a family member to be a primary caregiver,” says Dr. Rosemary Laird, medical director at the Health First Aging Institute in Florida.
One thing Alana and I spoke about was the healing power of friendship. “There are a lot of studies about people who have love in their lives who have a better chance of recovery,” says Stewart. “Love is a very healing energy…knowing someone is in your corner as you battle an illness is really important because it makes you feel like you are not going through this alone.”
When it comes to the power of friendships, a book called Connected: The Surprising Power of our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, illuminates how friendships can hold sway over us (and us over them) in both good and bad ways. This influence can extend to three degrees of friendship and according to the authors, having a first-degree friend who is happy increases the likelihood of your happiness factor by 15 percent.
Healing Herself By Helping Others
One of the things that Alana promised Farrah is that she would carry out her wishes to continue the work of the foundation Farrah had established to help those families facing cancer. Today, Alana is president of the Farrah Fawcett Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to exploring non-traditional methods of cancer research and clinical trials, such as gene therapy and targeted therapy, and providing early detection and preventative programs. If Farrah could not find the cure in her lifetime, she wanted to ensure the foundation created in her name would do it for others after she was gone – and Alana is the keeper of that flame.
The foundation hosts conferences with leading cancer researchers and experts around the globe. A recent gathering focused on chemo sensitivity testing. The foundation is also dedicated to helping caregivers and families directly. The Farrah Fawcett Patient Assistance Fund helps families struggling with financial challenges while going through cancer treatment. “Whether it’s meals or hotel bills or even parking costs for every day when you are at a medical center while your loved one gets treatment, our program provides direct financial help to those families in need,” says Stewart.
In addition, one of the foundation’s current fundraising efforts is the recently announced vintage Farrah t-shirt from Urban Outfitters that features the iconic Farrah red bathing suit shot from the 1970s, A portion of the sales proceeds will benefit the foundation. Another fundraiser is a calendar of famous Farrah photos debuting this month.
Being at the helm of the Farrah Fawcett Foundation has helped Alana keep Farrah’s memory and legacy alive. Alana’s message and her mission with the foundation is what Farrah wanted – to give back to the world, something Alana says she learned from the experience of caring for Farrah. In the end, Alana just wants her friend to be proud of the foundation work that carries her name.
Stewart says one of the other things she learned about her journey with Farrah was the importance of doing something for another person. “Getting out of yourself and your own problems and just showing up for someone. What I learned is to try to appreciate every day of your life because it can take a turn and change in a heartbeat,” says Stewart. “You also learn to value the friends in your life and not take love and families for granted.”
In Alana’s book, My Journey with Farrah, Ryan O’Neal, Farrah’s longtime love and companion writes, “The bond between women friends is all-powerful and not to be taken lightly. But the bond between Alana and Farrah is like nothing I’ve ever seen between two women. They grew together like vines.”
You can follow the activities of the Farrah Fawcett Foundation on Facebook and Alana Stewart on Twitter at AlanaKStewart.
Sherri Snelling is writing a book on celebrity caregivers and the lessons of love and caring that will be published in February, 2013.