By Sherri Snelling
Our caregiving contributor, Sherri Snelling, spoke to Alana Stewart about her memories of caring for her best friend, Farrah Fawcett, whom she lost to cancer in 2009. Now, Alana is carrying on Farrah’s memory by heading up the foundation in Farrah’s name.
Alana’s journey with Farrah is a remarkable record of friendship. 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. That is love.
In Alana’s book, “My Journey with Farrah,” Ryan O’Neal, Farrah’s longtime love and companion, said that “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.”
And in “Rearview Mirror,” her upcoming autobiography, Alana makes clear that caring for Farrah was one of the most important episodes of her life.
When you talk with Alana about that time in her life, she says simply, “It was just the thing to do.” 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 and making the athletic Farrah very weak.
“Farrah had such amazing courage and faith, we never even talked about the possibility of these treatments not working,” says Stewart, a former model who was married to George Hamilton and Rod Stewart.
As is typical in caregiving situations, Alana became Farrah’s protector. For instance, she made sure that no paparazzi caught a photo of Farrah in a wheelchair. Alana explains that wasn’t vanity on Farrah’s part. She just didn’t want 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 Farrah being their inspiration. Alana also became Farrah’s advocate with various health care professionals. The choices Farrah made for her treatment were all her own, but Alana took notes and asked a lot of questions. And at Farrah’s request, eventually made 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.
In remembering those years, Alana emphasized 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.”
In addition to caring for Farrah during her life, Alana promised to carry out Farrah’s wishes after the actress’s death. One of those tasks is continuing the work of the foundation Farrah had established to help families facing cancer. Today, Alana is president of the nonprofit Farrah Fawcett Foundation, an 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 help do it for others after she was gone .
Alana is the keeper of that flame. The foundation hosts conferences with leading cancer researchers and experts around the globe. Through the Farrah Fawcett Patient Assistance Fund, the foundation is also dedicated to helping caregivers and families with financial challenges while coping with cancer. “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.
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 most basic 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. You also learn to value the friends in your life and not take love and families for granted.”
You can follow the activities of the Farrah Fawcett Foundation on Facebook and Alana Stewart on Twitter at AlanaKStewart.
Sherri Snelling, CEO and founder of the Caregiving Club, is a nationally recognized expert on America’s 65 million family caregivers with special emphasis on how to help caregivers balance “self-care” while caring for a loved one. She is the former chairman of the National Alliance for Caregiving and is currently writing a book about celebrities who have been caregivers. You can find more information at: www.caregivingclub.com.