By Jocelyn Selim
Learning To Speak About Cancer
A survivor broadcasts information and hope
By Jocelyn Selim
Valerie Smaldone isn’t a shy person. She is one of those few people who make unwavering eye contact. But Smaldone’s unyielding gaze is less aggressive than it is inquisitive. She demands answers, whether she is interviewing the likes of Paul McCartney or Elton John on the radio—or, one imagines, talking to her doctors.
Many more people know Smaldone by voice, a singularly melodic and clear tone, than by sight. Besides hosting a radio show in New York City from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. every weekday, Smaldone has conducted nationally syndicated celebrity interviews. She also does voice-over work for television and radio. “People are surprised when they meet me,” she says. “They can be innocently rude sometimes—they’ll say, oh, I thought you were blonder, or younger. It can be a little bit awkward.”
In fact, Smaldone looks much younger than her 48 years. A woman who takes pride in her appearance as much as in her accomplishments—her radio show has been top-rated in one of the nation’s top markets for more than a decade—Smaldone is flawlessly put together, and one suspects she spends a lot of time in the gym. She exudes wellness as much as she seems to radiate the hustle and bustle of Times Square in Manhattan, the home of her broadcast studio.
It’s difficult to picture ovarian cancer stopping Smaldone in her tracks. In April 2001, after feeling generally under the weather for a few months, she made time to see her doctor. The doctor found and removed an ovarian cyst, but he also took a sample of an abnormality from her right ovary for further testing. Smaldone wasn’t particularly concerned, until she got the phone call.
“My doctor left a message asking me to come back to his office,” says Smaldone. “That’s when I knew it was going to be bad news. They don’t ask you to come back to the office unless something is really wrong.” Smaldone wanted answers, so she left phone messages until she heard from her doctor, and then she demanded to know the test results.
At 42 years old, Smaldone had stage IC ovarian cancer. The cancer was contained in her right ovary, but her doctors told her that didn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t spreading. A woman who speaks to millions of people each day, Smaldone suddenly found herself speechless: “I was really angry, it just seemed so unfair. I take care of myself, I eat right, I exercise, I don’t even have a family history of cancer. I mean, how dare this happen to me? I was going in to have a routine cyst removed.”
Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths among U.S. women. While it’s not as common as breast cancer, it has a sobering mortality rate: Each year about 22,000 U.S. women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer and 15,000 of them will die of the disease, largely because most cases are detected at a late stage.